Keep the flowers coming
Long-flowering cottage garden penstemons keep blooming to the frosts. Val Bourne picks the best
Cottage-garden penstemons keep blooming to the frosts
Penstemons peak gloriously in late-summer and autumn, providing continual flower often into November. Their airy, upright spires provide a vertical presence in a sunny border and their tubular bells come in shades of white, pink, deep-red, purple, lavender and electric-blue. Flower shape can vary from elegantly slender trumpet to wide-open gaping mouth. Many have finely veined white throats designed to lure in bees; penstemons are very wildlife friendly. Most of our named forms are bred from North American species and hardiness does vary. The Victorians, who had much colder winters than we do now, grew them as summer bedding and raised new plants from cuttings every year. However in the early 20th century, plant breeders began to raise hardier penstemon hybrids and two Swiss-bred cultivars, ‘Schoenholzeri’ (previously ‘Firebird’) and ‘Andenken an Friedrich Hahn’ (previously ‘Garnet’) were introduced into this country by the late Alan Bloom of Bressingham in 1939.
Secrets of success
The secret of success is to leave the top growth intact over winter to protect the base, then cut them back in spring once new growth appears. They can look a little ragged in hard winters, although this didn’t stop eminent lady gardeners such as Margery Fish (1892–1969) of East Lambrook Manor, who enthused about their ‘continuous colour’ and described lilac and white ‘Sour Grapes’ as ‘iridescent’. Vita Sackville-West (1892–1962) grew many in her Sissinghurst Castle garden and passed ‘Sour Grapes’ to Beth Chatto, but it proved to be a muted lilac-purple called ‘Stapleford Gem’. To this day, the two are still muddled. Much breeding was centred around the Worcestershire town of Pershore. In the 1960s, amateur breeder and former Vice Principal of Pershore College Ron Sidwell (1909–1993) bred a Bird Series. ‘Blackbird’, ‘Flamingo’, ‘Osprey’, ‘Whitethroat’ and near-black ‘Raven’ are still grown today. Pershore student Edward Wilson (1948–2009) raised and named more than 50 new cultivars from 1985 onwards. Many have Pensham in their name, where Hayloft Plants is based. They took over Edward’s collection after his death and still sell bright pink ‘Pensham Just Jayne’, ‘Pensham Victoria Plum’ and ‘Pensham Laura’, a pink-edged white. Stong, tall ‘Pensham Ted’s Purple’ has a white throat and ‘Pensham Plum Jerkum’, my favourite, is named after a local liqueur. The best range is available in May. Penstemons slot into cottage-style gardens really well and complement silver-leaved plants perfectly. Sultry reds and dark-purple blacks add a richness to borders of golden daisies. Wine-red ‘Andenken an Friedrich Hahn’ is excellent with soft-blue nepetas, herbaceous clematis and pink roses. Dainty pink ‘Evelyn’ mingles well with Stipa tenuissima and blue Catananche caerulea. These amenable plants flatter repeatflowering roses too, filling in any fallow patches and acting as an encore.