It’s rare to find a species whose native distribution covers much of western USA, but omits Oregon. According to the USDA Plants Database, that is the case with Penstemon palmeri (as of May 2017). Needless to say, this piqued my curiosity.
Part of my disbelief was that I photographed this showy species, Palmer’s penstemon or scented beardtongue, within a few kilometers of the Oregon border in Idaho. Recalling the roadside terrain where I photographed it, there didn’t seem to be a good reason it wouldn’t also occur in Oregon. Digging a little bit deeper, I found the answer. Penstemon palmeri is native to the Great Basin and deserts of southwest USA. It has been introduced as a roadside planting throughout the western USA, where it has naturalized. One reference specifically notes introductions into southern Idaho and northern Utah. Another (with many additional photographs) notes its introduction into Washington. And, yet another infers an introduction into Colorado: Penstemon palmeri. Conclusion? The USDA Plants database needs a category for “introduced native”! It seems with its success in naturalizing along roadsides, it will eventually find its way into Oregon.
Where it does grow natively, it occurs along roadsides as well as washes, sagebrush scrub, canyon floors, creosote bush scrub, and juniper woodland plant communities.
Despite this being one of the few fragrant beardtongue species, I can’t describe the scent for you. It wasn’t ideal conditions for photography with the wind whipping the plants around and the occasional semi-truck barreling along the highway, so I didn’t think to take the time to sample the perfume. Perhaps someone will describe it in the comments?
In addition to the scent distinguishing it from other species of Penstemon, other key characteristics include the the large rounded shape of the flower and buds (some nurseries call it balloon flower) and the connate-perfoliate leaves in the mid- to upper parts of the stem.