Plants for Pollinators: Beardtongue

This post is part of an ongoing series highlighting some of the best plants for pollinators from coast-to-coast. Drawing from our books 100 Plants to Feed the Bees, Gardening for Butterflies , and our Monarch Nectar Plant Guides.


Beardtongue

Penstemon spp.

Penstemon has flower reminiscent of foxglove and comes in a variety of colors depending on the species. Photo: Justin Wheeler

Beardtongue gets its name for the hairs that line the protruding lower petal of these tubular plants. These hairs serve an interesting function, forcing bees deeper into the flower where they have to struggle a bit to emerge, firmly adhering pollen to themselves in the process.

Foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis) has another interesting feature, nectar guides. If you look into the tubular flowers you’ll notice several distinct lines leading to the back of the flower. These lines act like runway lights, advertising to bees that “the good stuff is back here!”

Like Culver’s root, beardtongue fills a critical role, providing pollen and nectar at a time when resources are dwindling at the end of spring. Their long bloom time can stretch between late spring and mid-summer when other plants are just beginning to bloom. Beardtongue is easy to add to the landscape as it’s one of the smaller wildflowers. Low growing foliage is topped by flower masses that reach around 2’ in height and give way to seed heads that are enjoyed by birds late in the season. Beardtongue is visited by a number of bees including sweat bees, leafcutter bees, and is frequented by newly hatched bumble bees.

Native Range: There are roughly 150 species of Penstemon in North America, and many varieties are available in the nursery trade. Flowers range in color from pink, red, blue, white, purple, and seemingly every shade in-between. Blue and white flowers seem to attract the most pollinators. Hairy beardtongue (Penstemon hirsutus) is native predominately in the Northeastern U.S. and Canada, as far west as the Great Lakes region. Penstemon digitalis extends a bit farther west and as far south as Texas. Many western species exist and are often drought-tolerant selections.

 

The nectar guides are clearly visible in the photo at left, as are the hairs that give beardtongue its name. These hairs coax bees forward, deep into the flower allowing the anthers to wrap around the bee and deposit their pollen. Photo: Justin Wheeler

 

Best For: Providing important late spring/early summer resources. A prolific nectar producer, it is visited by a huge diversity of butterflies, moths, and bees.

Profile written by Justin Wheeler, Web and Communications Specialist


This plant and many others are featured in our book Gardening for Butterflies, available here.

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