Hartley Magazine

All the latest news, hints, tips and advice from our experts

Autumn Fireworks – the penstemon

Penstemon ‘Andenken ah Friedrich Hahn’ ( syn ‘Garnet’)

A good garden should shine throughout the year and it should also provide plenty of nectar from early spring until late autumn. This is the time of year to think about late-flowering plants, because many of them come from the southern hemisphere, particularly South America. Flowers tend to be pigment packed, with plenty of reds, oranges and rich-blues on offer, because many of them are hummingbird pollinated in the wild. It’s colour that’s usually the lure. Fuchsias, penstemons and salvias have a jewel-box richness and they’re short-day plants, so they come into their own form September onwards when the days and the light are evenly balanced.

Late blooms also sustain the lingering bee or butterfly, bent on one last day of pleasure before winter beckons, to feed for another day or two and these are the memories that sustain us when winter descends. They’re a comfort blanket for the gardener too!

Many late-flowering plants come from warmer climates so they tend to be slightly tender and planting them now gives them a much better chance of developing some roots before winter descends. All too often we’re attracted to colourful fuchsias and salvias in September, when they’re looking their best on the garden centre or nursery bench. We plant them in the garden and never see them again, because they’ve had no time to get established.

Even penstemons may perish if they’re planted in September. A hundred years ago penstemons were considered to be bedding plants. They replaced the wallflowers and, in August, cuttings were taken and then they were removed by September. Some still have Bedder in their name. Modern gardeners treat them very differently and grow them in their borders, because few things look as good in autumn. It’s partly climate, winters are definitely warmer than they were a hundred years ago, and it’s partly plant breeding. There still on the tender side and the golden rule with penstemons  is to cut them back to the new growth in spring. They do tend to be short lived so it’s always wise to take insurance cuttings, because older plants often lack vigour and failed to shoot very much in spring. A tired-looking plant needs replacing.

The bird series of penstemons, with names like ‘Osprey’, ‘Raven’ and ‘Blackbird’, appeared in the 1960s and they were deliberately bred to be garden plants rather than bedding plants. They were raised by a gentleman called Ron Sidwell (1909 – 1993).  After the Second World War Ron Sidwell mapped the whole of the Vale of Evesham to find the best places to grow plums, because frosts kill the early spring blossom and that means no crop. This was in the days when home-grown food was of great economic importance. Many a plum orchard was planted on his recommendation and he had the reputation of being able to tell any variety of plum purely from the stone.

If this seems a trivial skill now, it wasn’t then. Unscrupulous growers would lie about their varieties in order to get a better prices because certain varieties were in higher demand. Court cases relied on Sidwell’s expert opinion when there was dispute and they’re sometimes was.

Ron also had a love of southern hemisphere plants and he was a keen gardener. Armed with his map of the most frost-free places in the Vale, he bought a small cottage at Bredon Springs called Little Paris. There he developed island beds and hybridised penstemons, helped by the milder climate. Sadly I never met Ron Sidwell, but his plants outlived him and Julie Ritchie of Hoo House Nursery near Tewkesbury still propagates some including his penstemons.

Modern penstemon breeding didn’t fall far from the plum tree after Sidwell’s death, because Edward Wilson ( 1948 – 2009) went on to raise a Pensham strain in the village of the same name close to Pershore. ‘Ted’s Purple’ is named after him. Hayloft Plants, also based at Pensham, took over Wilson’s penstemon collection. At one time the Pershore College also held a National Collection of species penstemons.

My personal favourite, when it comes to penstemons, is a very hardy penstemon that was once called ‘Garnet’. It was raised in Switzerland and botanical law says that we have to call it by its original name of ‘Andenken an Friedrich Hahn’. This plant was introduced in 1939 by Alan Bloom of Bressingham, along with ‘Firebird’ which is now called ‘Schoenholzeri’. Alan Bloom knew many of the top plant breeders and in those days Germany and Switzerland were naming some excellent herbaceous plants and grasses. Penstemon  ‘Andenken an Friedrich Hahn’ is in a class of its own, with narrow foliage and slender burgundy flowers that keep on coming until November. I also rate the pale-pink ‘Evelyn’, the smoky blue-grey ‘Sour Grapes’ and ‘Hidcote Pink’ for their elegance and flower power.

Penstemon heterophyllus with bumble bee

Having a six Hartley greenhouse helps enormously with all slightly tender plants. You can either overwinter them in pots, with a frost-breaking electric heater to ensure their survival, all you can take cuttings and place them in an electric propagator. Penstemon cuttings are easily taken from June until August,  using three-inch cuttings. Remove the flower bud, if there is one, and trim below the node ( the bumpy bit where the leaves emerge)  and then trim below the node. Plunge into a tray or pot of 100% coarse horticultural sand or a 50% mix of sand and compost. Pot up and keep your young plants over winter if possible, before planting them out from mid-May onwards.

If you use coarse horticultural sound (and it must be coarse because fine sand  dries out too quickly) you can keep small seed trays of it in a shady spot in your greenhouse. It’s ready and waiting every time you take a cutting and sometimes it’s accidental. You’re in the border and then you hear a crisp snap, the sound every gardener dreads. It only takes a second plunge the tragic stem into the damp sand and it really works. This is the way I take all my cuttings as I haven’t got time to mix up a special potful. Fuchsias, salvias, pelargoniums, dianthus  and countless other plants also root well like this.

My favourite anecdote about cuttings concerns a rather grand lady called Primrose Warburg. Primrose, who died in 1996, was wealthy and well-connected. She was very keen on snowdrops and if the title Snowdrop Queen applied to anyone, it applied to her. You were summoned to her garden and this is the fate that befell a young botanist called Timothy Walker. He had just been appointed to run the Oxford Botanic Garden, the U.K.’s oldest botanic garden. Primroses late husband was a famous botanist and within weeks Timothy had received an invitation to South Hayes.

Primrose had a reputation for not suffering fools gladly, so a nervous Timothy went round the garden with her. He admired a plant and she asked him whether he would like a cutting. “Is it the right time to take a cutting” Timothy enquired. Primrose’s reply came back like gunfire. “The right time to take a cutting young man is when it’s offered.”

Timothy Walker is one of the best horticultural speakers and he does have a website.