Once you’ve seen a hummingbird probing the lipped, tubular flowers of Penstemon heterophyllus it’s easy to understand why the Cahuilla Indians dubbed it “hummingbird’s kiss.” They valued the plant for its healing properties and in ceremonies for the dead prized it for its beauty and perhaps other symbolism.
Today a concoction made from this herb is used as a soothing application for the skin. Mashed and blended, it’s sometimes mixed with other ingredients such as olive oil and used as a lotion for the treatment of rashes, cold sores, chapped hands and other skin irritations.
Also called foothill penstemon, it originated in the rocky crevices and dry, gravelly soils amongst the inner coast ranges from the Bay Area down through San Diego.
Though it reaches 4 feet in the wild, in domestic use this beard tongue reaches 12-20 inches. It’s a semi-evergreen subshrub with narrow blue-green leaves. In spring-summer, they make way for erect stalks of nodding, tubular flowers about 1 to 1 ½ inches long. These vary from deep-violet pink almost to the true blue so sought after in any flower. If happy, penstemon can live 30 years or more.
“The Language of Flowers,” from England’s Victorian Period records the plant’s traditional meaning: “Pleasure without alloy”; pure pleasure.
…just ask the hummingbirds, bees and butterflies!
Penstemon is a huge genus with 250 species – nearly all worth exploring.