If you have spent any time in the subalpine and alpine zones of the Rockies and mountains affiliated with that part of the western cordillera, during late June to early September, you’ve likely seen Penstemon whippleanus, a member of subgenus Penstemon section Penstemon subsection Humiles. It is found in mountains of Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and northern Arizona – New Mexico.
This beautiful species is one of the most variable in the genus. Flowers can be purple, magenta, purplish-black, pale lavender, or creamy white. The flowers are covered in glistening glandular hairs, which appear jewel-like in the right kind of light. The size ranges from 20 to 60 cm (8 to 24 inches) in height, with the shorter morphs found primarily at high elevations. The elevational range is from 1524 to 3658 m (5000 to 12000 ft) for P. whippleanus.
The species was named after Amiel Weeks Whipple (1816-1863), who was a topographical engineer and surveyor with the US Army. He may have encountered the species named in his honor while exploring routes for the first transcontinental railroad in 1853. This was to be placed along the 35th parallel, which would have put him at the southern range of P. whippleanus in northern New Mexico and northern Arizona. Ten years later, serving as the chief topographical engineer for the US Army during the Civil War, he lost his life after being shot by a sharpshooter at the Battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia.
Penstemon whippleanus makes a lovely addition to the garden, requiring some moisture and neutral to acidic soils. Seed will germinate after a three month cold moist stratification treatment. It is a natural spreader and may get out of hand if the conditions are too favorable. The plant is easily propagated by division.