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Courtesy photo/Marilyn Blanton

Native Roots: Gulf Coast penstemon, a spring flowering perennial with lavender blossoms

Profile image for Becca Dickstein
Becca Dickstein

Many people grow Gulf Coast penstemon for its showy lavender flowers in the spring. Some choose it as an alternative ground cover in part-sun location because of its evergreen foliage and prolific self-seeding.

Others grow Gulf Coast penstemon because it serves as a nectar source for bees, insects and butterflies and it attracts hummingbirds. And its flowers are fairly long lasting in bouquets, making it a good plant for a cutting garden.

Gulf Coast Penstemon, Penstemon tenuis, is also known as Brazos penstemon, Brazos beardtongue, Sharpsepal beardtongue, Gulf penstemon and Gulf beardtongue. It is native to southeastern and East Texas. Gulf Coast penstemon's foliage is usually up to 12 inches wide and 12 inches tall, but in the spring with flower spikes, it can be as tall as 30 inches. Its tapering leaves are usually 3 to 6 inches long and medium green.

Gulf Coast penstemon's light purple flowers appear in mid-spring. Although the flowers are small, there are many of them, usually on multiple flower spikes that last for several weeks. Sometimes Gulf Coast penstemon flowers again in the fall, although the blooms are more limited. Flowering is followed by attractive, tough two-tenths-inch seed capsules containing many small seeds that stay on the plant through the winter, unless cut off. To avoid having Gulf Coast penstemon seed out prolifically, cut the flower stalks after blooming. This may also promote a further round of blooming.

Partial shade is best for Gulf Coast penstemon, although it will tolerate full sun. It prefers moist soils and grows well in both moderately acidic and alkaline conditions. It will do well in seasonal poor drainage. It may be grown in containers. Although Gulf Coast penstemon is quite tolerant of dry conditions, it may be watered during extreme drought.

Companion plants with a similar flowering time include Hinckley columbine (Aquilegia chrysantha var. hinckleyana) and golden groundsel (Packera obovate). Consider planting Gulf Coast penstemon instead of exotic perennials like coral bells (Heuchera spp.), bugleweed (Ajuga spp.), Dianthus and non-native Coreopsis species.

Gulf Coast penstemon and other native plants will be available at the Native Plant Society of Texas Trinity Forks Chapter annual plant sale from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. April 1 in Home Depot's parking lot at 852 Long Prairie Road in Flower Mound. Come early for the best selection.

Look for the NICE! Plant of the Season signs and information sheets on your next visit to a participating North Texas nursery. Participating nurseries include Four Seasons Nursery, Meador Nursery and Painted Flower Farm, all in Denton; Shades of Green Nursery in Frisco and Hartwell's Nursery in Lewisville. Thank you for using native plants in your landscapes.

BECCA DICKSTEIN, a member of the Trinity Forks Chapter of the Native Plant Society of Texas, is on the University of North Texas biological sciences faculty.