Ink & Penstemon

Observations on plants, gardening, & nature from the Great Basin steppe in the American West.

If you get mired in something, click on the Penstemon barbatus 'Elfin Pink' image.



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    A perfect combination of the rare endemic Carex haysii (Hays's sedge), Adiantum capillus-veneris (southern maidenhair fern), Mimulus cardinals (Scarlet monkey flower). Adiantum capillus-vernus Mimulus cardinalis. A Canyon Tree Frog (Hyla arenicolor), resting in the wet crack, trying to look inconspicuous, and mostly succeeding.

    Hanging garden vignette along the Hidden Canyon Trail at Zion National Park, Utah. Scroll over the images for a caption with plant IDs and descriptions.

    Zion National Park is at the junction of three ecoregions, and consequently has a greater concentration of plant species than any other national park except the Grand Canyon. Of the unique plant habitats in the park, the hanging gardens are the most enchanting.

    Water naturally leeches through the immense vertical cliffs of Navajo sandstone, a process that takes up to 10,000 years, to then emerge in natural seeps under and around alcoves where water loving plants luxuriate in the cool water and shade year round. “Weeping Rock” is the most frequented of these natural water gardens, but the Hidden Canyon Trail provides a less trammeled and more immediate look at these Edens in the desert.

    Eriogonum heracleoides (whorled buckwheat), Spanish Fork Canyon, Utah. Photo credit, Steve Hegji.

    Lupinus argenteus, Dry Creek trail, Alpine, Utah. Photo credit Steve Hegji.

    Baileya pleniradiata (Wooly Desert Marigold), Sand Hollow State Park, Utah. Similar to B. multiradiata, but this is B. pleniradiata because it is better branched and leafier, and just nicer overall. Generally an annual, but will stick around for a second year if the winter is mild. It flowers twice a year, after the winter-spring rains, and then again after the late summer “monsoons.”

    Yucca elata in flower at Sand Hollow State Park, Utah, along with Penstemon ambiguus.

    Grow This: Epipactus gigantea ‘Serpentine Night’



    There aren’t many western-native orchids that adapt themselves well to the garden, but Giant Helleborine (Epipactus gigantea) is perhaps the easiest and one of the showiest. Especially this variety, ‘Serpentine Night.’ Granted, the flowers aren’t the humongous tropical kind, but the purplish-black foliage that comes with the plant makes it well worth planting.


    This variety of epipactus is from a parent population of E. gigantea f. rubrifolia that Roger Raiche found in ‘The Cedars’ in California in Sonoma County. (An informative write-up about this unique botanic and geological treasure is in the April 2009 issue of Fremontia, the journal for the California Native Plant Society.) There also seems to be something of a story behind this plant’s discovery. The Cistus catalog had this tantalizing tidbit when they had it still in stock (which they don’t anymore, sorry): ”Parker’s dramatic 150 ft. fall led to this plant…and a helicopter ride to the emergency room.” ?!?!


    This orchid likes wet soils, so putting it next to a pond or under a birdbath would work. It would probably perform best as a pond marginal, as the constantly moist soil would allow the stalks to grow to 2 feet or more. I have mine at the bottom of a downspout in an irrigated area and it does fine. I’ve seen local populations growing near stream banks in limestone scree, so I bet this little orchid can take some drying out and still come back, but as with most plants, they appreciate some pampering and will reward you for it.


    In this case, the reward has come from the orchid reseeding about 15 feet away in a bed of solid mint. There is a broken sprinkler head in there and low and behold, the orchid likes the mint jungle. This little seedling hasn’t retained the purple leaves of its parent, but I’m not going to start to complain if orchids start growing from seed in my garden.

    Abronia fragrans (fragrant sand Verbena). Hidden Canyon Trail, Zion National Park, Utah.

    Eriogonum fasciculatum var. polifolium. Sand Hollow State Park, Utah. Another #friendofpenstemons trying to steal the show. Very nice backlit in the morning light against the red sand.

    Flower on Echinocereus triglochidiatus I got from Intermountain Cactus. Description has it hailing from the Manzano Mountains in New Mexico. “Unusual with large tubercles and only 3 spines per areole.” For me, that translates as “big bumps; not so spiny. Has big red flowers. Is good.”

    'Copper Pot' Eschscholzia californica and Penstemon sepalulus are taking center stage in the gravel garden since more structural agaves, yuccas and various grasses aren’t up to snuff to carry it on their own. But color means lots of gawkers. Now if only the city would let me do something about that strip of green in the park strip. That’s Eremurus robustus ‘Spring Valley Splendor’ on the right, by the way.

    Time for a change of pace from #Penstemania to #friendsofPenstemons.

    Krameria erecta (Littleleaf Rhatany, Purple heather), Sand Hollow State Park, Utah.

    Krameria, commonly referred to as “Rhatany” is the only genus of the family Krameriacea, and 17 lower species classifications which occur in the Carribean, Central America, and South America. The North American species are mostly thorny, gray, tangled shrubs, made remarkable in the spring and the fall by the purple orchid-like little flowers that cover them. They are parasitic plants, leeching nutrients, and especially in this case, water, from neighboring host plants. The plant produces rhataniatannic acid, which is similar to tannic acid; it has been used traditionally as a mouthwash and dentifrice. Apparently, mouth rinses with “Ratanhia” remain very popular in places like Peru and Argentina.

    Penstemon humilis var. obtusifolius (Zion Penstemon), along the Hidden Canyon Trail, Zion National Park, Utah.

    Penstemon palmeri var. palmeri (Palmer’s Penstemon). Top photo, outside the Springdale Community Center, Springdale, Utah. Bottom three, Snow Canyon, Utah.

    Palmer’s Penstemon is something of a gateway Penstemon species. It’s tall, fragrant, and has a prominent bearded staminode which owns up to the common name “beardtongue.” P. palmeri is like a foxglove for the dryland garden.

    The pictures above show the variation in color, however the middle left is the most purple I’ve ever seen it. 

    Penstemon pinorum (Pinyon Penstemon), Old Iron Town Road, Cedar City, Utah. This guy has only been its own species since 1985. It is found growing among the Juniper forest and is listed as critically imperiled.

    This is the best shot I got, so we’ll have to live with it. For those as deeply dissatisfied as I am, here is a link to a better image.

    Penstemon thompsoniae, (Thompson’s Penstemon), Old Iron Town Road, Cedar City, Utah.

    There was some debate as to whether this itty bitty thing was P. caespitosa or P. thompsoniae. The botanists came down on the side of P. thompsoniae. Regardless, these plants are tiny. You had to look really closely for those plants and even closer to make sure you didn’t step on any.

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