In a forest of Colorado green, two of the brightest wildflower reds to be found are paintbrushes and penstemons. Lipstick red. Fire engine red. Screaming reds that can be seen from miles away—and that’s the point. Although paintbrushes may be pink or yellow, and penstemons blue or purple, the reds exist to be pollinated by one specific creature—the hummingbird. These tiny-winged birds, in their long migratory flights, seek out bright red blossoms for a nectar snack and pollinate an oddly configured bloom.
Both penstemons and paintbrushes contain nectar that isn’t easy for all pollinators to extract, except a hummingbird. The long, narrow blossom tubes of penstemons and the hidden nectar of paintbrushes perfectly suit the long-billed bird. Other pollinators may be driven to frustration. Bees, moths and even flies squeeze as best they can into their tubular flowers. But this is the essence of specialty evolution. The bird and blossom fit perfectly. Over time the fit has pollinated the blossom more completely than any other creature and so the reds thrived, the bright color scanned from the heavens above by tiny birds with acute eyesight.
Many penstemons have jumped from mountain scree to home gardens lately, some quite directly without any human tinkering. So successfully have they lodged into suburban landscape you’d think inviting wildflowers into a garden would be easy. Their untamed beauty fits into a natural Western garden and, in the last decade, most longtime gardeners wonder how they ever got along without them. Like flags of many colors, penstemons wave their tiny trumpets in the breeze with purple, pink, red, orange, blue and white colors. Many are drought-tolerant and some adapt to a variety of soils. Most hail from the West. The Rocky Mountain penstemon and one-sided penstemon are so flamboyant and long lasting that many gardeners imagine them to have been bred by botanists. Not so.
Both penstemons and paintbrushes are members of the figwort family, unknown and unloved compared to the rose or lily families, but important. A few other notables fall into the figwort family: veronicas, snapdragons, foxgloves, lousewort, monkey flower, skullcap. And two rampantly invasive weeds hail from this family, mullein and toadflax. While the figwort family may vary in looks, a few similarities stand out. Many offer small flowers, which differentiates them from the sunflower or rose family. Also, look closely at a figwort flower and they often feature a lower lip. It may have golden hairs, as if to attract a pollinator, either by the color or as a kind of landing pad. This is the fuzzy beard that gives them their common name–beardtongue.
This modest family doesn’t provide food like corn from the grass collection or apples from the rose family, but it has clout. Many are distinguished medicinal plants. An established pharmaceutical ingredient, digitalis, is derived from foxgloves.
In the spring and early summer, blue-mist penstemons carpet the Front Range foothills. Whipple’s white and purple penstemons bloom higher in subalpine areas. Many of the most drought-tolerant penstemons can be found in the dry Western Slope shrub lands like the narrow-leaved penstemon. On the Western slope the bright red of barbatus penstemons catch the eye of a passing hummingbird or hiker. Paintbrushes, too, change colors readily according to altitude, from pink to red, yellow and creamy white. Pink and red flourish in montane environments; their yellow and cream-colored relatives thrive closer to subalpine heights.
But here the similarity ends. The vivid colors of paintbrushes are not flowers, but the bracts and calyx that have evolved to deliver bright hues. And paintbrushes have never attracted the horticultural trade. That’s because they are hemiparasites. They will link their root system to blue grama grass or sagebrush and extract nutrients while, at the same time, producing their own nutrients. They rarely will be found without a host plant nearby. Fortunately for them host plants abound in the wild. But this relationship rarely exists in a home garden.
Penstemons, too, can be challenging. Most penstemons that require specialty soil won’t adapt to ordinary garden soil. It’s more likely that rock garden enthusiasts cultivate these wild beauties, especially the Western Slope penstemons like scree penstemon or hallii penstemon. Rock gardeners are attentive to duplicating the scree of a mountainside. But a few, like Penstemon strictus (Rocky Mountain penstemon), now can be purchased in most garden centers. Penstemon cardinalis, Penstemon tubaeflorus, Penstemon virens, Penstemon palmeri and Penstemon pseudospectablis all are available in the horticultural trade.
Penstemons remind us that beauty exists in the harshest climates, because many penstemons cling to soil without much humus, water or shade. Entire colonies thrive where little else has taken root, often on disturbed soil. They have survived because of their adaptation to our rugged conditions, often far superior to the general robust dandelions that seem to adapt nearly everywhere else. Their beauty amid difficult landscape makes them precious. And to migrating hummingbirds, the reds among the figworts make them essential traveling food.
A selection of paintbrushes and penstemons
|Paintbrushes(Castilleja)||Alpine paintbrush, yellow-creamy||Castilleja puberula||tundra|
|Orange paintbrush||Castilleja integra||mesas, high meadows|
|Plains paintbrush, chartreuse||Castilleja sessiliflora||mesas and plains|
|Rosy paintbrush||Castilleja rhexifolia||subalpine and alpine|
|Scarlet paintbrush||Castilleja miniata||montane|
|Western Yellow paintbrush||Castilleja occidentalis||Tundra|
|Wyoming paintbrush, red-orange||Castilleja linariaefolia||meadows, montane|
|Yellow paintbrush||Castilleja sulphurea||montane, subalpine|
|Beard-tongues(Penstemons)||Alpine penstemon||Penstemon alpinus||foothills to alpine|
|Blue-mist penstemon, blue to purple||Penstemon virens||foothills and montane|
|Meadow penstemon, blue-purple||Penstemon rydbergii||subalpine|
|Fire-cracker or iron maiden penstemon||Penstemon barbatus||arid canyons|
|Hall’s penstemon, pink||Penstemon hallii||montane|
|Upright blue beardtongue, lilac-colored||Penstemon virgatus||foothills and mesas|
|Narrow-leaved penstemon, blue||Penstemon angustifolius||plains|
|One-sided penstemon, pink||Penstemon secundiflorus||foothills|
|Scree penstemon, lilac-colored||Penstemon harbourii||alpine|
|Slender penstemon, purple||Penstemon gracilis||mesas|
|Small-flowered penstemon, blue to pink||Penstemon procerus||subalpine|
|Whipple’s penstemon, whitish or purple||Penstemon whippleanus||subalpine|
Trail hike: Vail Pass Shrine Ridge Trail
Shrine Ridge Trail from late June through September is a classic wildflower hike. Like other mountain trails, the spectacular blooms cascade from week to week. In an abbreviated summer, each flowering plant hurries to attract a pollinator before winter closes in and that means that most bloom simultaneously. While the foothills flowers stretch far longer from spring through fall, often a few vigorous flowers dominate the trails. Here you’ll see flowers blooming at the same time on mountain trails that might never appear together on a foothills trail.
Shrine Ridge Trail also meanders from wet to drier meadows, which adds to the diversity of flowers. Hike any remarkable mountain trail and you’ll receive a lesson in pollination. Daisies make the perfect landing pad for moths and butterflies. Blue campanula bells flare with petals wide enough to fit a bee. But on this trail, perhaps the most spectacular flower is the paintbrush. You’ll see pale pink, vivid scarlet, fire-engine red, hot orange, mild yellow and cream. This is a meadow that feeds hummingbirds and billions of other hungry creatures, too. Nearly every pollinator adores paintbrushes and the variety of flower hues indicates rampant cross-pollination.
Shrine Ridge Trail, just off I-70 at Vail Pass, is popular enough to warrant a large gravel parking lot and pit toilets. Many hikers arrive from Vail in the morning with the intention of getting down before mid-afternoon storms. Most of the trail winds around meadows and forest, but the destination is above tree line, open and exposed. You’ll see lightning almost daily at the top. Hikers head toward the summit determined to reach the views. But take some time along the way. So much busyness is taking place on both sides of the trail it’s worthwhile to study what grows at your feet.
The trail skirts willow bushes lined by Douglas-firs—a sign that you’re in an area with plenty of water. Boardwalks cross wet hollows usually filled with sedges and little elephant’s heads, also called elephant lousewort (Pedicularis groenlandica). Although it takes good eyesight to spot the shape of the blossom, each resembles a tiny elephant’s head. It’s in the figwort family, and many more figworts flourish on this trail, but none that loves boggy meadows quite like elephant’s heads. This figwort spreads throughout the Rockies and northwest, but always under the same conditions. Heading up the trail, Whipple’s purple penstemons take over. Even so, the vast majority of penstemons grow best in dry soil, often in extremely arid landscape.
Dandelions thrive alongside the trail. Each time soil becomes defoliated it’s a chance for invasive weeds to take root. The damp, rich soil on this trail provides perfect conditions for dandelions and they show strength all along the way. Soon you’ll see hummingbird food: scarlet gilia. It’s the first scarlet-tinged blossom that marks a red, pink and orange trail up to tree line. Paintbrushes begin with pink, followed by scarlet, then bright orange, soft orange sherbet orange and then red. By tree line, they’ve changed into yellow and cream tones.
Hummingbirds, while attracted to red, quickly learn other flowers possess rich sources of nectar. They’ll feed from blue larkspur and blue penstemons, too. Mountain death camas (Anticlea elegans)may bring woe to mammals, but pollinating flies cover these poisonous plants from the lily family. The sunflower family ranges from purple asters, grounsels and arnica. Royal purple monkshood joins larkspur in the delphinium family, and like death camas, can be poisonous for us, but excellent nectar producers for the smaller-winged. Wild strawberries produce fruit. And grasses are nutritious for grazers. American bistort (Bistorta bistortoides) provides nutritious food for nearly all mammals at high altitude and on this trail its fuzzy blossom pompoms are widespread.
By treeline, the surrounding peaks emerge. Alpine avens grow plentifully but most alpines are vest viewed in early summer, June at the latest. Best of all, walking down is more spectacular than the climb up. All the small creatures and flowers that you may have missed suddenly come into view.