Looking for a small perennial with a big impact? Consider Pineleaf Penstemon (Penstemon pinifolius). True to its common name, this low-growing plant has long, narrow leaves similar to pine needles. They hang on well into winter, and may be evergreen even in some colder climates. But it’s the flowers that steal the show. The dense mass of vivid scarlet red simply takes your breath away!
Like other penstemons, the flowers are tube-shaped, perfect for pollinators. The brilliant color is a beacon for hummingbirds, who hover over the blossoms sipping their sweet nectar. On the other hand, my herd of wild rabbits haven’t nibbled a single leaf.
Some gardeners complain that penstemons are short-lived perennials. I suspect that’s because they’re being too nice to them. Western natives, penstemons require full sun and lean, well-drained soil to retain their compact growth. Offer too much water or fertilizer and you’ll have floppy plants that grow themselves to an early death. Plants are reliably hardy in zones 5 through 9.
With a height of eight to ten inches and a spread of twelve to fifteen inches, this little beauty belongs at the front of the xeric border. My penstemons nestle up to some large boulders, which provide a contrasting backdrop and insulate the roots. In our parking strip, the boulders offer protection as well, keeping wandering footsteps off the plants.
This penstemon blooms in early to mid-summer, something to remember when choosing companion plants. Flowers that intense clearly take the starring role, but choosing a supporting cast could be a challenge. Gray foliage will tone things down—consider Artemisia, snow-in-summer, or lamb’s ears, for example. Or go bold with equally intense orange or purple—perhaps Coreopsis, blanket flower, or annuals such as marigolds and verbena. The shorter ornamental grasses also make excellent partners, as you can see at right.
If flaming red is a bit overpowering for your garden, Pineleaf Penstemon comes in a few other colors. ‘Luminous’ offers orange flowers with yellow throats. ‘Mersea Yellow’ blooms are soft and buttery. Both would provide a lovely contrast for soft-purple companions such as lavender.