Our Mission: Grow a network of habitat for songbirds and pollinators in gardens across the Rocky Mountains and beyond, save water for our streams and rivers, and restore our joy in nature every day.
Our monthly Plant Profiles from Plant Select® feature plants that thrive in the Rocky Mountain region and also provide critical needs for wildlife.
Ideal for Hummingbird Gardens–a Summer-Blooming Penstemon
Penstemons or beardtongues are staples in most western wildscapes – their tubular flowers come in a wide range of colors with specialized parts to attract many different kinds of pollinators. (Read more about penstemons).
Nearly all plants in this group bloom in the earlier part of summer – usually May and June. For hummingbirds, this is important timing because the plants supply high-energy nectar as the birds arrive from their spring migration and begin courting and nesting activities.
(A note about flower nectar versus feeders: Unlike the sugar-water in hummingbird feeders, sucking nectar from flowers such as penstemons provides complete nutrition, including the fat and vitamins from the pollen in the floral tube, and protein from any small insects hummingbirds swab up with each slurp of their brush-tipped tongues.)
Bridges’ Penstemon: Late-Bloomer, Long-Lived
Most penstemons finish blooming before the heat of summer really kicks in. But one species, Bridges’ penstemon, thrives in the heat and blooms late July through August in most areas. It’s also a woodier plant – almost shrublike, with a bushier base topped with wiry, wispy stems. It tends to be quite long-lived as well.
As a “late bloomer,” Bridges’ penstemon flowers provide an important food source –both to Rufous hummingbirds heading back midsummer, and to all hummingbird species still in residence preparing for their migration southbound later on.
The scarlet-orange flowers are similar to scarlet bugler penstemon (P. barbatus) which blooms much earlier, though the plants are quite different in habit. Interestingly, the stems and flowers of Bridges’ penstemon are covered with fine, sticky glandular hairs that trap small insects – another source of protein for these high-energy birds.
A Southwest Native
Native to the Southwestern U.S., Bridges’ penstemon is found in the foothills, canyons and shrublands of southern California, Nevada, Utah, southwestern Colorado, western New Mexico and northern Arizona. In gardens, it thrives in hot climates needing little moisture (once established) and preferring well-drained, mineral soils.
(Nomenclature note: The common name comes from this plant’s former botanical name, P. bridgesii. Once it was discovered that the same plant had been officially described and named by two different individuals in two separate locations, the name was switched to earliest description, which takes precedence in taxonomy.)
Wildlife benefits: Provides nectar, pollen and small insects to foraging hummingbirds. Also feeds butterflies and orioles. Functions as hiding cover for ground-nesting birds and other small wildlife.
Growing tips: For best results, try to imitate the natural conditions of the Southwest – hot and dry with sandy or gravelly, well-drained soils. South and west-facing slopes are ideal in Zones 5 and 4b, and at higher elevations. Using gravel for mulch encourages re-seeding.
At a glance: Bridges’ penstemon (Penstemon rostriflorus)
- Height: 24”-36”
- Width: 20”-30”
- Growth habit: spreading at base with upright flower stems
- USDA Hardiness Zones 4b-8
- How to Use: In dryland plantings, dry meadows, with cacti and succulents, or use as a colorful, wispy accent.
- Culture: Full sun; prefers well-drained soils, but will tolerate a wide range of soil-types if allowed to completely dry between waterings (once established).