Habit: The shiny upright foliage and radiant columns of red flowers of this penstemon are like tiny sparks bursting from a low fire, and inspired its clever name, firecracker penstemon. The plant sends out a few stems, which are coarse and purplish, and measure 16 to 40 inches tall. All leaves grow oppositely along the stems, up to 4 inches long, and are elliptic or lance-shaped. Lower blades are connected to the stem by rather long petioles (leafstalks), but the upper ones lack petioles. Flowers are shaped as hollow, cylindrical tubes and arranged along a panicle, 4-12 per stalk. Tubes are usually angled downward. The corolla is bright scarlet and about 1 inch long and blooms in late spring or early summer.
Ecology: firecracker penstemon is found in dry slopes, open road banks, coniferous forests and sagebrush plains between 3,300 and 8,000 feet of elevation. It is native from southwestern Colorado to Nevada and south to New Mexico and California. Penstemon eatonii was introduced to Idaho when the Idaho Highway Department started using it for road side plantings, and now can be found in areas where it was not originally native from.
Growing conditions: it prefers full sun and well-drained soils. It is a low-maintenance plant, requiring minimal inputs, and tolerates cold and drought, once established. This species is a prime source of nectar for hummingbirds and makes a great addition for the garden, either as a focal point or in masses.
Native Americans used firecracker penstemon for a variety of medicinal purposes, including the treatment of stomach ailments, and the healing of burns, snake and spider bites. It was also used as a veterinary aid. Penstemon eatonni was named after Alvah A. Eaton, a nineteenth century botanist and plant collector, known for describing several grasses, orchids and other vascular plants.