By Scott Calhoun
Almost every spring the intense color—from pink to coral to deep red—of desert penstemon flowers catches me off guard. Their flower stalks are tall, and when I walk by, their flowers usually are above waist level. I think of these tall elegant stalks as the supermodels of desert perennials.
You can choose from lots of penstemons. A few of my favorites include a hybrid called ‘Red Headed Beauty’ (pictured above), and old standards such as Parry’s (pictured).
Nearly all penstemons adapted for low-desert horticulture love full sun and grow in the cool season. You can plant them from containers or by seed in fall. Penstemons’ visitors include hummingbirds, butterflies and hawk moths.
Another spring blooming perennial—this one a succulent—has a bloom that overlaps with penstemon: aloe. Aloes, such as the Aloe striata pictured, are early-spring bloomers that provide hummingbirds much-needed nectar before other plants flower. Aloes need a warm location in winter and a partially shaded location in summer. I like to tuck in aloes next to winter-deciduous shrubs that provide shade during the hot months.
For a tough low-grower rabbits generally avoid, I like damianita daisy (pictured). It has aromatic foliage. (Some might say “stinky,” but I think of it as herbal.) In mid- to late spring a haze of tiny, yellow, daisylike flowers obscure small, needlelike green leaves. If planted in groups, damianita daisy can function as a groundcover.
The last flower I’ll feature is globemallow. This tough and cold-hardy desert native blooms in a rainbow of colors. The most common is orange, but you also can find pink (pictured), red, white and lavender varieties. All colors have olive green to silver foliage. Globemallow is a short-lived perennial but a ready reseeder. I like to buy globemallow while it is blooming in the spring to best pick the color, as nurseries don’t always sort them that way.
See more spring flowers for the desert southwest in my video.