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Linda Naeve, Reiman Gardens, (515) 294-8946,
Jean McGuire, Continuing Education and Communication Services, (515) 294-7033,

Plant a "Husker" in Your Garden

By Linda Naeve
Extension Coordinator
Reiman Gardens

Many plants have strange common names based on the appearance of the flowers or plant or the way in which they grow. The descriptive names originate from very careful observations or vivid imaginations. Some good examples of this are the compass plant, obedient plant, wishbone flower and daylily. This week's Reiman's Pick has a very odd common name - Bearded tongue - which refers to a unique characteristic in its flower. One of the five stamens in each flower is much larger than the others and is fuzzy, giving it a bearded appearance. The genus name, Penstemon, comes from the Greek words "pente" meaning five and "stemon" meaning "stamen."

Penstemons (pronounced pen-STAY-mons) are members of same plant family as snapdragons, veronicas, foxglove and mullein, in which unusual-shaped flowers are a family characteristic. Penstemons produce several large, white tubular flowers on spike-like racemes. Each flower appears to have two-lips; the upper lip has two petals fused together forming two lobes, and the lower lip is three-lobed.

Penstemons are native to various parts of North America and perform well in our Midwest climate. They grow well under dry conditions, but do not tolerate wet, soggy soils.

The cultivar that increased the popularity and use of penstemons in home gardens is Penstemon digitalis, "Husker Red." It is a fairly recent introduction, and, like its name implies, was developed at the University of Nebraska. It grows 30 to 36 inches in height with dark, maroon-red foliage and white flowers. "Husker Red" forms tidy clumps and is hardy from USDA zone 3 through 8.

Although most penstemon species will grow and bloom in partial shade, "Husker Red" requires a full-sun location to maintain its colorful foliage. It sends up strong stems containing many white flowers in early to mid-summer and blooms beautifully for nearly four weeks.

"Husker Red" has very few pest problems and is easy to maintain. Besides weed control and occasional watering, the only thing that needs to be done to it in the summer is cutting back the flower stalks after they have finished blooming. The plants do not require frequent dividing to keep them healthy and in bounds. However, the clumps can be divided every three or four years to obtain more plants for your garden. Because of its low maintenance and beauty in the garden, the Perennial Plant Association named "Husker Red" penstemon its "1996 Plant of the Year." It adds several design elements to a garden. Group several plants in a drift or mass planting for a dynamic display of color in mid-summer. Its straight, upright flower stems contrast well with round- or mound-shaped plants. The maroon leaves complement and contrast well with many sun-loving perennials. They also make good cut flowers. The foliage and flowers are beautiful in a vase with pink lilies or roses.

"Husker Red" penstemon is featured in many locations at Reiman Gardens. It can be seen blooming in mass plantings in the Patty Jischke Children's Garden and the Town and Country Garden.

To learn more about the Reiman Gardens at Iowa State University visit us on the Web at:


Editors: A color photo, suitable for publication, is available at right. Click on the thumbnail photo to go to the fullsized photo. The picture's fullsize photo is 352K.

Caption: "Husker Red" Penstemon

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