Why penstemons are a pollinator’s first decide

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When it comes to flower worship, the Penstemon clan tops the list with orchids and roses. With 272 to 300 species (depending on the source), the genus is the largest in the US, with the species being found in every state. About 90 percent occur in the western states. Utah leads the way with 76 species and Arizona has about 50.

Botanists specialize in them, arboretums hold festivals in their honor and there is even a club of their own. The American Penstemon Society can tell you everything you wanted to know about penstemons, including all kinds of information that self-proclaimed penstemanics might find interesting.

A member of the plantain family (Plantagaceae), the penstemon probably first showed its flower face on planet Earth in the Rocky Mountains. Most Penstemons come in shades of blue and purple; a few dozen blush reds and a handful reveal glamorous shades of pink, or a standout shade of white, yellow, or burgundy. The latter carries a Flagstaff breakaway, Whipples Penstemon.

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Penstemons prefer disturbed areas as they need light and good drainage to germinate their seeds. Colonies often appear along sun-kissed roads and roadsides. However, Whipple’s Penstemon tolerates shade and grows in mixed coniferous forests.

Penstemons, like any other flower, are designed to please their pollinators. Their flowers have two upper and three lower petals of just the right colour, size and position to suit their pollinators’ preferences.

For example, the few red numbers have narrow tubes tailored for hummingbirds, which are strongly attracted to the color red. and their lower petals generally retract to ensure pollinators that cannot levitate never sip their cup. The puffy pale pink Palmer penstemon, on the other hand, harbors bumblebees with landing pad-like lower petals.

Is that a Pentstemon or Penstemon?

If you take a look inside a penstemon, you can understand how the flower got its name by referring to the occasionally used Greek spelling “pentstemon”. The Greek name refers to the five (pénte) stamens (stem or filament) of the penstemon.

But wait – one of the stamens has no pollen. So there are actually only four stamens and one that looks like a stamen. The nerd is technically called a staminode. This sterile stamen usually carries a row of hairs, earning the family the nickname “beard tongue”. The correct spelling of the name “penstemon” combines Latin and Greek: Latin “paene” or “almost” and Greek “stemon”, which describes the staminode almost as a stamen.

Since nature has the ability to eliminate everything superfluous, especially if it does not contribute to the survival of the species, the question arises as to how this sterile stamen was able to prevail. The short answer is that it gets in the way of a quick pollination experience.

The placement of the staminodium in the penstemon causes the pollinator to spend more time getting to the nectar while navigating the obstacle. With the staminode strategically placed, the pollinator has more contact with the stigma to lay down more pollen, as well as with the anthers, meaning it leaves with more pollen.

The hairs on the staminodium not only give the pollinator support, but also prevent valuable pollen from falling out of the flower. And some staminodes actually position floating pollinators for maximum anther contact. In other words, the staminode directs pollinator traffic.

The staminodes of each species have specific characteristics to increase the chances of pollination in each visitor. The shoulder-high Palmer penstemon is an easy target for a variety of bees. The staminodium has a covering of bright yellow hairs – bees are attracted to the colors purple, blue and yellow – and lays like a welcome mat right where bees enter the flower. As a further incentive, unlike the rest of the daisy family, the flower gives off a scent that is attractive to bees.

Nicknamed for its striking color, the scarlet hornbill (P. barbatus) is commonly found in pinyon, ponderosa, and spruce forests. The slender and downward-sloping flowers are shaped to fit little more than a hummingbird’s beak. The hairless staminodes, placed to urge the pollinator at the most favorable angle for pollination, allows pollen to fall directly onto the soaring hummingbirds.

Whipple’s penstemon (P. whippleanus), which grows in the upper reaches of the San Francisco Peaks and Kendrick Mountain, has hair almost everywhere except on its staminodium. In general, the hairs protect the plant from cold snaps.

Instead of a bearded tongue, tufts of hair line the lip of each flower, serving as a collection point for pollen dropped by visiting pollinators. The penstemon’s hairy stems prevent insects from approaching the typically burgundy flowers that cluster at the top. Most penstemons have flowers that sprout along the plant’s stem in what are known as elongated clusters.

If finding these penstemons doesn’t give you the slightest bit of penstemonism, then the Sunset Crater penstemon (P. clutei) certainly will. This pretty pink penstemon only grows in San Francisco Volcanic Field, specifically Sunset Crater. The Penstemon has bee-magnetic yellow hairs on the staminode and distinctive pink nectar lines that guide pollinators to its nectar. If you find a Sunset Crater Penstemon, you can call yourself a real Pensteman, if only by default, as there are said to be only a few dozen of these Penstemons.

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