Fashions come and fashions go. Dahlias are back in vogue, while chrysanthemums are not as popular as they once were. Roses have been in decline since Christopher Lloyd famously grubbed up his rose garden at Great Dixter, replacing them with tropical plants. Cannas are definitely "in", again thanks to Mr Lloyd, but no one seems to grow gladioli.
Penstemons, on the other hand, are probably more popular now than they have ever been, even prompting Hayloft Plants, based at Pensham near Pershore in Worcestershire, to produce a colourful mail order catalogue devoted to these beautiful and easy-to-please perennials.
They take their name from the Greek pente (five) and stemon (stamen), referring to the prominent, sterile fifth stamen. Penstemons originate from the west of North America and were once used by the native Americans to relieve toothache. Their flowers are similar to those of foxgloves, but there is a much wider range of colours and combinations of colours in penstemons than there is in foxgloves.
Penstemons can flower from May right through to November, which few other flowers can match. They are generally trouble-free and do not tend to be bothered by slugs or most other garden pests. A position in sun or partial shade suits them equally well and they seem to flourish in most reasonably well drained soils, even in those which are rather impoverished. They look good in borders, but are just as well suited to patio containers and are attractive to pollinating insects. Penstemons really are easy to grow and manage and deserve their new-found popularity.
Hayloft's first penstemon catalogue offers the largest selection of varieties I have ever seen. Four pages of the 16 page catalogue feature the superb Pensham penstemons, all bred by Edward Wilson who has been hybridising plants in the village of Pensham for more than 25 years Pensham is also the home of Hayloft Plants, which hopes that one day Edward will produce the first bold yellow or orange penstemon, two colours which have so far eluded him.
Many of the Pensham penstemons are named after the ladies in Edward's life - Just Jayne, Dorothy Wilson and Eleanor Young to name but three. It is interesting to note that although hundreds of beautiful strains of penstemon have been bred since the 18th century, less than 30 have been judged by the Royal Horticultural Society to be good enough to receive its Award of Garden Merit (AGM), a sure sign of all round excellence and outstanding garden performance.
Hayloft features 10 of these AGM winners in its catalogue, and all are of course worthy of consideration. I particularly like Hidcote Pink, which grows to 2ft (60cm) and the darkly coloured Raven is also rather special. Dwarfer and more compact varieties have been the aim of penstemon breeders, and that of the breeders of many other genera, in recent years, creating many varieties especially well suited to containers and smaller modern gardens. The catalogue has grouped together those varieties which it particularly recommends for container growing, making selection easier.
* If you like the idea of growing these undemanding yet beautiful perennials this year, Hayloft Plants delivers its young plants from April onwards. To request a catalogue, write to Hayloft Plants, Manor Farm Nursery, Pensham, Pershore, Worcestershire WR10 3HB, telephone 01386 554440 or visit hayloftplants.co.uk