I heard polka music coming through the tall ponderosa pines and felt dried needles crunching under my feet as we made our way from the parking lot to the Visitors Center. The picture in my mind was clear; our day at this Flagstaff public garden was worth the ride from Las Vegas.
31st Annual Penstemon Festival
In 2014, the 31st annual Penstemon Festival in Flagstaff, Arizona, was on Saturday, July 12. The Penstemon Festival runs concurrently with The Arboretum’s one-day plant sale each year. It is the perfect opportunity to walk outdoors and learn about this region’s flora and fauna.
The Penstemon Festival shows off its collection of the popular perennial, especially growing it in the Penstemon Garden and Pollinator Garden. I spotted the pine-leaf penstemon with its yellow flowers (Penstemon pinfolius) near the pond, as well as different species throughout The Arboretum.
Soon, we made our way to the wooden pergola frame with netting on one side protecting rows of tables with many perennials for sale. A sign tacked on the outside indicated native plants seeds were for sale, too.
Garden People Mingling with Plants and Pollinators
Dressed in green polo shirts, staff from The Arboretum were on hand explaining the comings and goings of pollinators scrambling about the native plants in the beds nearby the Plant Sale. Narrow footpaths bisected the garden where I stood; I felt delicate breezes created from the rufous hummingbirds (Selasphorus rufus) whizzing by.
White-lined sphinx moths (Hyles lineata) fluttered among the Rocky Mountain penstemon and Johnny-jump-ups (Viola tricolor) dabbled the ground with its yellow and light blue colors. A fat bee landed on one of the vertical stalks and climbed into each of the blue tubes and then methodically moved from one to another, up and down the stem.
Flagstaff Native Plant and Seed nursery staff, along with representatives from the Arizona Native Plant Society Chapter, Master Gardeners of Coconino County, and Monarch Watch, participated in the day’s events. They mingled with visitors, talking about plant material and how to build a garden of native plant species to support butterflies in the area.
Coconino County Extension Master Gardeners Talk Plants
The Coconino County Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardeners (MGs) cover a large section of northern Arizona. Flagstaff is in Coconino County, along with Grand Canyon National Park and several Native American nations.
Master Gardeners from the Coconino County Extension were at the Penstemon Festival with their tent and table. The Master Gardener members were overheard speaking to visitors; offering ideas on what to plant in their gardens and answering questions curious on becoming a local MG themselves.
Like local Master Gardeners around North America, the Coconino County MGs were particularly adept at talking about the nuances of growing a garden in the high elevation desert.
Penstemon Flowers at The Arboretum
The genus of Penstemon includes 250 species that are perennials and subshrubs and grow as deciduous or semi-evergreen.
The flowers are wide tubular shapes that have lipped edges, although some species mimic the narrow leaves with needle-shaped blooms. The leaves are linear; with varying widths depending on the species.
Experts consider the Four Corners area of the Southwest to have the highest concentration of penstemon plants, of which The Arboretum at Flagstaff is part.
One of the largest collections of Penstemon in North America is at The Arboretum. The grounds are awash in the flowers blooming from early summer to mid-autumn with species that thrive in the meadows surrounded by mountains. We saw various Penstemon species on our visit, including:
- P. strictus, the Rocky Mountain penstemon has bold blue flowers running up and down its tall upright stems.
- P. eatonii, the firecracker penstemon and P. barbatus, the beardlip, were in residence and are native species in Arizona.
- P. pinifolius, pine-leaf penstemon, has a spreading low growth habit that produces yellow flowers or in a smaller form with reddish-orange flowers characterized by needle-like foliage. Each is native to the Colorado Plateau.
- P. x mexicali ‘Red Rocks’ is a hybrid derived from a native penstemon bred with Mexican penstemon species.
The hairy tongue on the lip of the flower gives the perennial its nickname, beardtongue. It is a native plant in North America.
Visiting the Penstemon Festival in Northern Arizona
Arriving from regions west or south of Flagstaff, visitors receive a respite from the steaming low desert environs in mid-summer. Flagstaff’s daytime temperatures in July hover around 80 degrees F and at night typically remain in the 50s. The cool temperatures in Northern Arizona are reason enough to travel to the Penstemon Festival in July.
The plants on sale that day were primarily propagated by staff at The Arboretum and from the Flagstaff Native Plant and Seed nursery. Professionals categorize the plants as native or adaptable to the local environment.
This year, the German music provided a fine contrast playing their brass instruments to the food truck dispensing a variety of Chicago-styled pizzas that were delicious, especially after a day of cross-state travel.
Audacious Blooms Inspire This One-Day Event
Gardeners in the Colorado Plateau look forward to the area’s wet season in northern Arizona; the rains prompt the area’s many native wildflowers to paint their landscapes with audacious blooms. It long ago inspired this big seasonal concurrence of events at The Arboretum.
The Arboretum in Flagstaff holds the Summer Plant Sale and Penstemon Festival for just one day every year. The public garden offered free admission that day, but was only open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.