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Red Canyon Penstemon (Penstemon bracteatus)

Red Canyon beardtongue (Penstemon bracteatus) – Photo by Andi Wolfe ©2014

Utah is a hotspot for Penstemon diversity, and this little gem is a great example of the diverse morphology of the genus. Penstemon bracteatus was described by David Keck in 1934, and it’s one of the shortest species in the genus, rarely reaching a height of 10 cm (6 inches). The specific epithet, bracteatus, refers to the bracts that are prominent in the inflorescence. The common name is Red Canyon beardtongue, which reflects the narrow distribution of this species. It’s found, obviously, in Red Canyon and the Bryce Canyon area on the Paunsaugant Plateau – a geological substrate of soft limestone. The iron oxides in this rock layer give it a distinctive pink color. Penstemon bracteatus is one of the rare species of Penstemon, but it is not on the Federal listings for threatened or endangered species. The plant grows from rhizomatous roots, spreading into substantial mats.

In Bryce Canyon National Park, this species can be found along the upper slopes of the Peekaboo Trail from May to July. The elevational range for P. bracteatus is 2103 – 2530 m (6900 – 8300 feet).

Penstemon bracteatus

Penstemon bracteatus – Photo by Andi Wolfe ©2014

I first encountered this charming species during the 2014 American Penstemon Society Meeting.  Mike Stevens led a field trip to see some of the rare species of Penstemon found in southern Utah, and this was one of several we saw that particular day. The leaves are thick and covered in a waxy coating (= glaucous), which would help in preserving moisture during the hot and dry summers.

Penstemon bracteatus does very well in the rock garden according the American Penstemon Society (Lindgren and Wilde 2003). However, Nold (1999) reports it “requires considerable garden finesse to keep alive longer than a week.” It is very cold tolerant (-17°C, 0°F), and would be worth the effort given it’s lovely growth form and dense stalks of bright blue flowers.

Literature cited

Keck DD (1934) A new Penstemon from Utah. Leaflets in Western Botany 1, 82-83.

Lindgren D, Wilde E (2003) American Penstemon Society: Growing Penstemons – species, cultivars and hybrids. Infinity Publishing Co. Haverford PA.

Nold R (1999) Penstemons. Timber Press, Portland, OR.