It's Penstemon Time in Los Alamos

by Chick Keller
May 30, 2008

Penstemon secundiflorus with swallowtail

One of the most beautiful times of the flowering year is the height of bloom of One-sided Penstemon (Penstemon secundiflorus, photo at right). A walk out Bayo Bench trail is a good way to see these "nature's snapdragons." There are several hundred plants along the trail, some nearly 2 feet high with many stems and blooms. Other plants are only 7-9 inches tall with a single stem. Regardless, their color is nearly indescribable. Lavender is the closest I can come but it doesn't do justice to the soft, subtle hues of the blooms. Already the ones out on the sunniest part of the trail are coming to an end, so hurry out before these ephemeral harbingers of summer go to seed.

Along Bayo Bench there are a few others in bloom but not so many as to be confusing. There are two yellow daisies--Perky Sue and the Senecio cousins (notchleaf, New Mexico, and Wooten's), similar except for leaf shape. Perky Sue differs from the senecios in that its petals remain wide (rather than coming to a single point) and end in three teeth. They are referred to as "tri-dentate," with the root "dent" common to other toothy words such as dentist and dandelion (English for the French dent-de-lion which refers to the dandelion's sharply toothed leaves).

Far out on the north-facing side of Bayo Canyon is the lovely yellow buttercup--Ranunculus ranunculinus which is uncommon elsewhere but can be found in most north-facing canyon slopes in Los Alamos County. So I've nick-named it Los Alamos buttercup!

Other plants in bloom are yellow ragweed (Hymenoppapus flavescens) which lacks petals. (It's not at all like its eastern namesake, so hay fever sufferers should have no fear.) Also, red paintbrush (Castilleja integra); two yuccas--wide-leafed banana yucca (Yucca baccata), and narrow-leafed yucca (used to be called Yucca glauca, but now known to be a different species); two evening primroses--large-flowered without stems (Oenothera caespitosa) and small-flowered--Oenothera coronopofolia (which means it has leaves "folia" like Coronopus--a native weed); and two cactuses-- yellow pricklypear (Opuntia polyacantha) and red claret cup (Echinocereus cocinnia).

For those wanting to name all the less obvious plants there's fringed puccoon and James' puccoon, shrubs--apache plume, Fendler's barberry, and cliff bush (in bud).

So, if you just want to see the penstemons or are looking for each and everything that's in bloom now, take a walk out Bayo Bench and enjoy. (For photos of these and other plants go to PEEC's website- --click on Nature Guides and "What's Blooming Now.")