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Curious Nature

Harrington’s Penstemon is a Gem in Eagle County’s Wildflower Crown

Posted by Walking Mountains Science Center on Jun 10, 2024 8:15:00 AM
Walking Mountains Science Center

Every spring, I get giddy at the first sight of color that isn’t the white or brown of mud season. I know that each year, the abundance and beauty of wildflowers in this region will continuously surprise and delight me. This year, I am most excited to watch for one of the most unique flowers in all of Eagle County: Harrington’s Penstemon. 

What is a penstemon, anyway? Well, this wildflower belongs to the Plantaginacea or Plantain Family, and the Penstemon or Beardtongue genus. They are known for their long, tubular flowers that resemble upper and lower lips, hence the Beardtongue nickname. Penstemons are the largest genus of flowering plants in North America, with over 270 different species. In Colorado alone, there are 62 native species, making many of them particularly difficult to identify without expert knowledge. There is such a diversity of penstemon that we can imagine that there is one that survives in nearly any type of microclimate. Harrington’s Penstemon stands out, though, because of its long, exserted stamens that stick out beyond the petals. Even more importantly, it only exists in Colorado—specifically, only in six counties in Colorado, and nowhere else in the world. Of the roughly 80 known growing locations, more than 50 are within Eagle County!


Penstemon (1)

Eagle County: Harrington’s Penstemon

As an addition to your flower garden, penstemons are an excellent drought-tolerant plant that provide food for native pollinators. White flowers tend to be pollinated by moths, blue and purple by bees and wasps, and red (such as the Firecracker Penstemon) by hummingbirds . Penstemon harringtonii petals range in color from pinkish to deep blue, like many of our state’s species. If you want to add any of these colorful, luscious lips to your yard, make sure to purchase cultivars from garden centers, and never harvest from the wild.

We don’t know much about Harrington’s Penstemon because it hasn’t been well studied. It is listed by the Colorado Natural Heritage Program as a vulnerable species, and we know that its populations are under threat by development and misuse of land by recreationists. They tend to be particular, growing only in dry sagebrush communities, downslope of larger plants such as trees or shrubs that may shield their fragile seeds. Even so, they don’t seem to mind poor, crumbly soil.

Penstemon (3)

 Lynn Albers and team of volunteers collecting detailed information to record a new known location of Penstemon harringtonii in June 2023

A good rule of thumb is to assume that any penstemon could be the vulnerable, rare, Harrington’s, and to make sure to leave it be (after getting a gorgeous snapshot, of course). My team of Naturalists and I were fortunate last spring to be on a stroll at Walking Mountains’ new Precourt Family Sweetwater Campus with local ethnobotany expert Lynn Albers, when she noticed these exserted stamens. She had discovered Harrington’s Penstemon on this site! Quickly, we started a comprehensive process to have the species documented at this location. Now that we know we have it under our care at Walking Mountains, we can take actions to conserve it.

Whichever sort of penstemon you may come across this spring and summer, I hope it makes you giddy! To learn more about this species and ways to conserve it, join a plant tour of West Avon Preserve with the Eagle Valley Land Trust, led by Lynn Albers, on Monday, June 17 to find Penstemon harringtonii and several other penstemons. Sign up for free at: evlt.org/event/penstemon

 Hannah Rumble is the Community Programs Director at Walking Mountains and she’s a sucker for any purple wildflower. 

Topics: Curious Nature

Walking Mountains Science Center

Written by Walking Mountains Science Center

Our mission is to awaken a sense of wonder and inspire environmental stewardship and sustainability through natural science education.