Penstemon Ice Cream

On a hot day you need to give yourself a cool treat.

                        Written by David Ponton


When the summer sun starts broadcasting beams of happiness and your temperature is rising, it is good to have a little ‘me time’ to reflect on the wonders of nature, call a halt on whatever you are doing, enjoy the day and get cool. Perhaps an iced drink, a cold beer, chilled wine or even better, some ice cream. Imagine going into the cool of an ‘ice cream parlour’ and encountering rich varieties with names such as Blueberry Fudge, Sweet Cherry, Melting Candy, Vanilla Plum and Strawberries & Cream. Delicious! Well, such varieties with these exact names do exist, but they are not ice cream flavours, they are a new

class of varieties in the Penstemon world. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Ice Cream Penstemons – the coolest plants in the garden!


The Ice Cream Penstemons have been specifically bred to produce larger flowers than usual. It is difficult to know whether the breeder named them Ice Cream because they look good enough to eat or because the flowers resemble miniature ice cream cones.


Penstemons were originally native to North America where they were just another wild plant. They were much sought after by the Native American tribes when they discovered that the roots could be used for toothache. Soon the botanists amongst the British settlers in the eighteenth century took an interest in this medicinal plant. The European botanists showed little interest in its use by the Native Americans, but became agitated to the point of excitement by the fact the plant had a fifth stamen (the male part of the plant – most plants identified at that time only had four stamen). So they named the plant the ‘Five Stamen’ plant, or in Latin Pent-Stamen, which became misspelled as Penstemon.


Soon seeds were being offered in London and in 1835 Flanagan & Nutting offered nine varieties in their 1835 catalogue. Their popularity soared as French and German breeders joined in the action by breeding new hybrids and in 1861 The Royal Horticultural Society held trials in which 74 varieties were entered. Thus was born one of the greatest garden perennials.


The Penstemon is much loved as a garden plant for one reason alone – its flowers. There is no scent, the foliage is always simply defined as either narrow or large; but as for the flowers, well they are something else, they are outstanding in both shape and colour. The flowers form enchanting, brightly coloured bells that can be so vibrant you can feel your soul vibrate. This is especially true when you look upon them on a sunny day as they take on an almost luminous quality akin to a neon light.


Now, what gets me even more excited about the new Ice Cream Penstemons is that they have been bred to minimise the size of the stem and foliage, but maximise the size of the flower. So the flower size to plant size ratio is very high and thus you are getting the Penstemons greatest attribute without masses of foliage. Look at the pictures of the Ice Cream varieties to see what I mean and imagine these growing in you garden. They would look pretty special wouldn’t they?


If you are a patio gardener better still, because the Ice Creams have been bred to be compact with big flowers. They will look dynamic in pots, tubs and containers on the patio, fully grown they will be only 18–24 inches in height and with an 18–24 inch spread, but with BIG colourful bells hanging off the stems. When these are fully mature you will get upwards of 30 stems on each variety with every stem laden with flowers. They are little flower factories and the flowers will just keep on coming.


If you plant young plants in June and July they will develop fast in the warm soils and readily establish in your garden. Every year thereafter, the beautiful bell shaped flowers appear for up to six months from late May to the first frosts. These hardy perennials will thrive in all soil types in borders and patio containers in full sun or part shade.


Their life expectancy is 20 years and beyond, plus they are drought, rain and pest-resistant and they will add so much colour and vibrancy to your garden.


So when the warm summer days arrive the coolest plants are the Ice Cream Penstemons. Looking at the colours and having had pause for reflection, I think I now know why the breeder named them the ‘Ice Creams’ – it was because they DO look good enough to eat!


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