Hairy Beardtongue is one of the most landscape friendly native plants. It has a compact size, doesn’t spread aggressively with the exception of some self-seeding. It blooms beautiful lavender-white flowers in Spring, really providing some stunning color. I’ve been growing this plant for years and have dozens around my property, and I can share all that I’ve learned with you.
In this article:
- What is Hairy Beardtongue
- What are the benefits of Hairy Beardtongue
- Identification / Characteristics
- How to Grow and Care for Hairy Beardtongue
- What Wildlife, Pests, and Diseases effect Hairy Beardtongue
- Where to buy Hairy Beardtongue
- Uses of Hairy Beardtongue
What is Hairy Beardtongue
Hairy Beardtongue is a herbaceous perennial flower native to North America. Scientifically known as Penstemon hirsutus, it grows 18″ tall in full sun and well drained soil. Blooming purple-white flowers for ~ 4-6 weeks and attract numerous bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Additionally it is a larval host for 3 species of butterfly.
The natural habitat of Hairy Beardtongue is dry slopes, prairies, along the edge of woods, and limestone areas with thin, light soil. I’ve found large colonies of Hairy Beardtongue as a wildflower in roadside ditches. 
Native Range of Hairy Beardtongue
The primary native range of Hairy Beardtongue is the Eastern / North Eastern United States from Michigan, down to West Virginia/Virginia via Indiana and Ohio, and then up to Maine and southern Ontario and Quebec.
Hairy Beardtongue Reference Table
|Native Range, USDA Zone
|Eastern North America, USDA Hardiness Zone 3-9
|Late Spring to early Summer
|Bloom Duration, Color
|4-6 weeks, purple/lavender/white
|1-2′ (30-60 cm)
|Spacing / Spread
|6-12″ (15-30 cm)
|Full sun, partial sun, part shade
|Sandy, loam, clay loam (well-draining)
|Medium to Dry
|Fauna Associations / Larval Hosts
|Bees, butterflies, hummingbirds. / Hosts Baltimore Checkerspot caterpillar
What are the Benefits of Hairy Beardtongue
Hairy Beardtongue has several unique benefits it brings to a garden. It’s compact size make it extremely versatile to fit in a formal flowerbed or a shorter wildflower garden, meadow, or micro-prairie.
Hairy Beardtongue blooms earlier than all other native Penstemons. It blooms in late Spring after the Tulips and Daffodils have finished, but before the bulk of perennials. So, it does a great job filling in color gaps in your garden.
The beautiful flowering spikes of lavender-white blooms can create a dramatic effect for any yard. Hundreds of blooms create a mass of color that can’t be ignored.
Hairy Beardtonuge is drought tolerant once established. So, it can do well in some hard-to-grow-anything areas. Yet it still does fine in most soils as long as they drain well. 
Hairy Beardtongue is one of those ‘total package’ native plants that can attract bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Also, it hosts several species of butterfly, making it a valuable addition to your local ecosystem.
Identification and Characteristics of Hairy Beardtongue
On average Hairy Beardtongue will grow 10-20″ tall. The reddish-brown stem is covered with small white hairs, which help explain it’s common name.
There will also be basal leaves on the plant that will persist throughout the year, making the plant semi-evergreen.
The flower Hairy Beardtongue are purple to lavender to white in color and have a 5 lobed floral tube that is formed with petals that are partially fused together. Individual flowers are 1″ long and appears to be a puckered pair of lips, similar to other members of the Penstemon genus. 
Flowers are arranged in a compound umbel consisting of 1-5 flowers (per umbel) attached by a short stem (petiole).
Blooming occurs for roughly 4 weeks beginning in late Spring or early Summer. When planted en mass this plant can put on quite a display.
After blooming a dry fruit will form in the shape of a capsule that is roughly 1/4″ to 3/16″ diameter (6-9 mm). When the capsule turns brown and hard, the seed should be ripe. If left alone, these capsules will linger throughout the Winter until the following Spring, with many splitting open naturally throughout the Winter (but not all).
How to save seed from Hairy Beardtongue
Squeezing the hard capsule between your fingers will cause it to rupture releasing many tiny seeds. The most efficient way to collect the seed is to cut several stalks in late Summer/early Fall and store in paper bags for a week or two. Then, just reach in and open the capsules by squeezing them or using a dough roller over the bag to pop the capsules. 
Related – if you want to save seed from Hairy Beardtongue, we have a detailed guide and video here.
You may store the seed for a year or two once fully dry in envelopes or zip-lock bags.
Hairy Beardtongue has a fibrous root system and short rhizomes. So, it is clump forming and will grow radially every year. That being said, you should consider dividing the plant every 3-5 years if you feel it is getting too large, or if the center is dying.
How Hairy Beardtongue Spreads
Hairy Beardtongue will spread by self-seeding as well as just growing larger from the short rhizomes expanding the plant clump. The seed from the pods begins being dispersed in Autumn and It is not aggressive, but you will notice some volunteer plants in Spring.
Hairy Beardtongue in Fall/Winter
In Winter, the basal leaves of Hairy Beardtongue will persist, making it a semi-evergreen plant. The flowering stems will also persist, but will be dormant and brown in color.
Grow and Care for Hairy Beardtongue
Hairy Beardtongue is quite versaitle in that it can grow in a fully exposed area subject to full sun all the way to a shadier area with only a couple hours of sunlight per day. Now, the main point to keep in mind is that more sun will equal more blooms with this plant. 
Published references state that Hairy Beardtongue will grow best on sandy-loam or loam soil. Basically anything ‘lite’.
In my own experience, Hairy Beardtongue is not too picky as long as it drains well. It may not be the best for clay soil, but I’ve grown it on clay-like soil that was on a slope (so it drained well). If you have clay soil you may wish to have a look of our list of 25 Native Plants for Clay Soil.
Related – Learn how to test your soil drainage here.
For moisture, Hairy Beardtongue prefers dry to slightly moist sites as long as they drain well!
There are three aspects of maintenance to Hairy Beardtongue. Dead heading to prevent self-seeding, deadheading in the Spring, and dividing the plant every few years.
Cutting back the stalks when dormant
If you don’t want any self-seeding from Hairy Beardtongue (it isn’t that much) then you can cut the flowering stalks down in August/September. Dispose of the stalks and no seed should escape.
If you aren’t concerned with self-seeding, then you can still cut the dead stalks back in Winter or just wait until Spring. You may get some birds eating seed that falls from the heads.
Dividing Hairy Beardtongue
As it is clump forming and will grow in diameter every year, you should consider dividing this plant every 3-5 years. It is a very tough plant, and can be divided in Spring or Fall just after, or just before dormancy.
Just use a spade, gardening knife, or pruning saw to cut the root stalk in half, and replant immediately.
For detailed instruction on dividing perennials, you should see our step-by-step guide.
As a native plant, Hairy Beardtongue will not require any supplemental fertilizer.
Video Guide for grow and Care of Hairy Beardtongue
A couple of years ago we produced a short detailed video showing the lifecycle of Hairy Beardtongue. You may find it useful to get an overview on this wonderful plant.
How to Grow Hairy Beardtongue from Seed
Germinating Hairy Beardtongue is fairly straight forward and easy. But the seed does have a physiological dormancy in that it needs cold moist stratification and sunlight to germinate.   So, you either need to cold-moist stratify the seeds in the refrigerator using the paper towel method for 30-60 days or Winter-Sow the seed.
If these terms are new to you, please have a look at our detailed guide for cold-moist stratification in the refrigerator and our detailed guide to Winter Sowing. My personal preference is strongly in favor of Winter Sowing over cold stratifying in the fridge. It is just easier to keep the seeds moist consistently.
Controlled studies in greenhouses found that if stratified, germination rates were 65%-80%. Prior to stratification, germination rates were ~30%. 
Process to germinate Hairy Beardtongue seed in containers
The following steps should be done on either seed that has been cold stratified, or follow these steps for Winter Sowing.
- Fill a container with moist potting soil. The soil should be wet enough where if you squeeze a handful only a couple of drops fall out.
- Press several seeds into the soil. I generally sow my seed quite liberally. Then I will thin unwanted seedlings later.
- Place the container in a location that gets morning sun and afternoon shade. This is an important step, as the seed of Hairy Beardtongue needs exposure to sunlight to germinate.
- Germination should occur once temperatures are reliably in 50F-70F (10C-20C)
A few weeks after germination, you should either separate or thin seedlings and transfer to larger pots. Then, grow them in the larger pots (4″ or more) for a couple more weeks before planting into their final location.
Direct Sowing Hairy Beardtongue Seed
If you have disturbed or bare soil, then it is quite easy to direct sow Hairy Beardtongue seed. Simply scatter the seed on the bare soil in Autumn or Winter. The seed should germinate once temperatures warm up in Spring.
How long does it take to establish Hairy Beardtongue
Wildlife, Pests, and Diseases associated with Hairy Beardtongue
Studies have found bumblebees, maason bees, and leaf-cutter bees to be the primary pollinators of Hairy Beardtongue (Penstemon hirsutus).  But, Hairy Beardtongue is an important plant for wildlife in that it attracts dozens of other species of bees, butterflies, and will also bring in the odd hummingbird.
Hairy Beardtongue is also a larval host for the Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly. 
Additionally, there are several small moth species whose larvae will feed on the seeds. Surveys showed that while all seeds of an ‘invaded’ capsule (by the larvae) would be consumed, only 15-20% of the capsules were predated on.   A grasshopper has also been recorded feeding on the foliage.  
Deer and Rabbits
As a general rule, members of the Penstemon genus are not preferred forage for deer and rabbits. Although some species of Penstemon do get browsed.  However, I have seen damage on my plants when new foliage is emerging in Spring. I’ve never seen it be fatal to the plant though.
If you wish to protect the plants, then I strongly recommend you use Liquid Fence. It is what I use on my on gardens, and it really works. You can find a link to it on our recommended products page.
Dogs and Cats and Hairy Beardtongue
I have extensively researched whether any Penstemon is toxic to dogs, cats, or herbivores in general and cannot find much evidence. I have a single source from Colorado State University stating that Penstemon can accumulate large quantities of Selenium in soil, and hoofed animals should avoid them. 
The ASPCA does not have it listed as being toxic for dogs or cats, it is absent from the reference book Poisonous Plants of the Southern United States. So, after checking this many sources, there doesn’t appear to be any evidence that Penstemon is toxic to dogs or cats.   
Hairy Beardtongue is generally not effected by disease.
Where you can buy Hairy Beardtongue
Hairy Beardtongue is not typically sold in nurseries. But it can be purchased at specialty nurseries that deal in Native Plants. You can find native plant nurseries near you on our interactive map.
Where to buy seeds
The easiest and cheapest way to get some plants is to germinate the seed yourself. I personally order a variety of native flower seeds from Everwilde Farms every year, which you can order right from Amazon through our link on our RECOMMENDED PRODUCTS PAGE. (We may earn a small commission when you purchase through our links, at no cost to you. This helps support our website.)
Uses of Hairy Beardtongue
It’s compact size and non-aggressive demeanor make Hairy Beardtongue a versatile plant in any garden. It is right at home in formal flower beds, border gardens, and wildflower meadows or micro-prairies.
It’s tolerance of partial shade also allow Hairy Beardtongue to provide interesting foliage and blooms in shadier areas or on the North side of a home, for example.
For companion plants, there are many species that grow well in similar conditions that won’t be overbearing. Really any plant that isn’t too large, aggressive but likes similar soil/moisture conditions should do well. Some suggestions of companion plants for Hairy Beardtongue include:
- Aromatic Aster (the latest blooming aster)
- Hoary Vervain
- Smooth Blue Aster
- New England Aster
- Foxglove Beardtongue
- Spotted Bee Balm
- Wild Bergamot
- Virginia Bluebells
- Lanceleaf Coreopsis
- Purple Prairie Clover
Medicinal Uses of Hairy Beardtongue
Although there is documentation of various native Penstemons being used medicinally by Native Americans, I cannot locate any reference to a medicinal use of Hairy Beardtongue. 
 – Clements, Richard K., Jerry M. Baskin, and Carol C. Baskin. “The comparative biology of the two closely-related species Penstemon tenuiflorus Pennell and P. hirsutus (L.) Willd.(Scrophulariaceae, section Graciles): I. Taxonomy and geographical distribution.” Castanea (1998): 138-153.
 – Penstemon hirsutus, USDA NRCS. Accessed 27JAN2022
 – Clements, Richard K., Jerry M. Baskin, and Carol C. Baskin. “The comparative biology of the two closely-related species Penstemon tenuiflorus Pennell and P. hirsutus (L.) Willd.(Scrophulariaceae, section Graciles): II. Reproductive biology.” Castanea (1999): 299-309.
 – Clements, Richard K., Jerry M. Baskin, and Carol C. Baskin. “The comparative biology of the two closely-related species Penstemon tenuiflorus Pennell and P. hirsutus (L.) Willd.(Scrophulariaceae, Section Graciles): III. Ecological life cycle, growth characteristics, and flowering requirements.” Castanea (2002): 161-176.
 – Schroeder, ELTORA M., and LELA V. Barton. “Germination and growth of some rock garden plants.” Contrib. Boyce Thompson Inst 10 (1939): 235-255.
 – Crosswhite, Frank S., and Carol D. Crosswhite. “Insect pollinators of Penstemon series Graciles (Scrophulariaceae) with notes on Osmia and other Megachilidae.” American Midland Naturalist (1966): 450-467.
 – Native Plants for Summer and Fall Bee Forage. USDA NRCS. Accessed 28JAN2022
 – Host Plants for Butterflies. CCE-Monroe Pollinator Friendly Garden Certification. Master Gardener, Cornell Cooperative Extension. Accessed 28JAN2022
 – Gangwere, Stanley Kenneth. “A monograph on food selection in Orthoptera.” Transactions of the American Entomological Society (1890-) 87.2/3 (1961): p 156. Accessed 28JAN2022
 – Mottled Sand Grasshopper Spharagemon collare (Scudder). Wyoming Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin 912. USDA NRCS. September 1994.
 – Guide to Poisonous Plants, Colorado State University.
 – Poisonous Plants to Livestock, North Carolina State University Extension. Accessed 27JAN2022
 – Toxic and Non-Toxic Plant List – Dogs, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Accessed 28JAN2022
 – Miller, J. F., et al. “Poisonous plants of the southern United States.” Poisonous plants of the southern United States. (1980).
 – Penstemon Plants, North American Ethnobotany Database. Accessed 28JAN2022.
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