Joy Creek Nursery has long relied on “garden penstemons” to brighten up our mixed borders. These versatile perennials come in so many vibrant colors and bloom over such a long period of time that it is hard to imagine our gardens without them. Their tubular flowers are large and showy, just the right size to house sleeping bumblebees overnight. Most cultivars have flowers with relatively wide lips surrounding their flower tubes. The lips consist of three lobes in the lower lip and two in the upper. Over the years we have selected and introduced seedlings that have unusual colors or markings.
Usually, the throats of penstemon flowers are streaked with dark guide lines that are possibly used to guide pollinators in search of the nectar at the base of the flowers. However, occasionally, during our evaluations, we have come upon odd-ball seedlings that have almost pure white throats that contrast sharply with the color of the surrounding lips. Some of our first penstemon introductions, a series which we called the Kissed Series, featured just such a combo of white throats and colorful lips. The series included ‘Cerise Kissed’, ‘Violet Kissed’, ‘Coral Kissed’, and ‘Wine Kissed’ which we released over a short period of time in the late 1990’s.
Recently our attention has been drawn back to the Kissed Series because of an extraordinary set of new seedlings that we grew. Among these seedlings were several plants with very white throats surrounded by lips in colors we hadn’t seen before.
The first of those seedlings to catch our eyes had flowers with vibrant rose-colored lips. The large flowers measured more than 1 ½ inches across. What was also pleasing was the composition of these flowers on the stem. Forty or more flowers and buds were arranged in a loose triangle with the flowers facing outward. Eventually, we decided to add this to the Kissed Series and named it ‘Rose Kissed’. It stands between 27 and 30 inches tall with a 15 inch spread.
One of its sisters was also very exciting. The arrangement of her flowers was similar to those of ‘Rose Kissed,’ however this seedling had brilliant scarlet lips. At first we worried that this plant was too similar to the classic cultivar named ‘Scarlet Queen’, but after growing our plant out in the garden, we discovered that it had larger, wider flowers. Also, the flowers of this new selection had a “quirk,” something that gave them “attitude.” Its flowers had very broad lower lobes and much smaller upper lobes. These upper lobes sometimes had a twist or tip to them that gave them a jaunty “devil-may-care” appearance. It is curious details like this that make for interesting plants. The color of the lips was so bright we named it ‘Red Hot Kissed’. It reaches about 24 inches in height and 15 inches in width.
Care for both of these plants is the same. Both like full sun. Although they require regular water, they do not like wet sites and require good drainage. They also resent cold winter winds. We recommend a sheltered site. In milder climates, these form attractive, evergreen shrubs. Cut back spent bloom spikes to encourage new growth and repeat bloom. Penstemons will bloom until first frost in the Pacific Northwest. Their September and October blooms complement the changing colors of the autumn garden while their lingering November flowers serve as bright spots in the early winter gloom.