June Flora Spotlight:
Penstemon smallii was named for John Kunkel Small, an American botanist born in Pennsylvania in 1869. He
was the first Curator of Museums at the New York Botanical Gardens, a post in which he served from 1898
until 1906. The genus Penstemon is in the Scrophulariaceae (figwort) family. The same family as
Verbascum, Digitalis, Veronica and Chelone to name a few. Penstemon is a very diverse genus numbering over 250
Penstemon smallii or "Small's Beardtongue" is a very easy plant to grow. In its native range, mainly
the mountains of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee, it grows in light shade in well-drained woodlands. It occurs naturally in places that are in shade for half the day, but also tolerates full sun.
Beardtongue prefers acidic, light, well-drained soil or sandy and rocky. Numerous,
white-throated flowers bloom on upright, branched stalks up to 2 1/2 ft. high. The purple stems have purple
veined leaves up to 6" long, making it an unusual cut flower. Penstemon smallii
can be considered a short-lived perennial, so allow it to self-seed.
This perennial is recognized by pollination ecologists for attracting large numbers of native bees. It also
attracts birds, hummingbirds and butterflies and is drought tolerant. What’s not to like about this plant?
Native Americans chewed the roots of this species of Penstemon and put the pulp into painful tooth cavities for
relief. They also used Penstemon roots to treat rattlesnake bites.