This month’s plant, a gorgeous little alpine penstemon from the Sierras, isn’t one that most people will be able to grow in their garden. I bring it to your attention because it’s one that triggers fond memories.
I saw Penstemon newberryi for the first time in the summer of 1974 on my first trip to Yosemite National Park. I was a 20-year old college student taking a couple of photo workshops at the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite valley. I photographed this brilliant red penstemon as part of a series of images around Waterwheel Falls in the Yosemite high country.
I’ve been back to the Sierras a few times since then, but never managed to get to the right place at the right time to see mountain pride in bloom again. This little subshrub grows on rock outcrops and talus slopes at montane to alpine elevations. You’d wonder how it manages to find any nutrients or water in the harsh places it grows, but it sneaks its roots down through cracks in the rocks and finds sustenance in the cool spaces hidden below.
Since Penstemon newberryi is technically considered a subshrub because it has persistent woody stems it will be included in our forthcoming field guide to trees and shrubs. I wanted to find it again and make fresh photographs that concentrated on the plant more than the landscape. Just as I’ve done for other plants targeted for the book, I consulted online records on CalFlora and found roadside sites on Mt. Shasta and in Lassen Volcanic National Park. My timing was off in 2011 and I missed finding it in bloom.
Last month I made another trip to California and found mountain pride in perfect full bloom at both Lassen and Shasta. It’s a showy plant so I spotted it easily along the road in both places.
I found it at Lassen growing out of a rock crevice near a pullout where I could park safely. There were just a handful of plants, all with very deep red blossoms, on this south-facing cliff in full sun. I pulled out my diffuser to soften the light and made many images.
The first plants I found along Everitt Memorial Highway at Mt. Shasta were well along in their bloom season, with stretched out stems and just a few remaining flowers. Since plants at higher elevations bloom later I kept driving up the mountain and about a thousand feet higher found a few gorgeous clumps on a loose talus slope above the road, with a convenient wide pullout nearby. By the time I got to Shasta it was late in the day and the plants were in deep shade even though they spend most of their day baked in bright sun. Here the blossoms were more variable in color, with shades of red, magenta, and purple.
Back to the bit about memories. One of the reasons I like to learn the names of the plants I find is as a way of cementing them in memory, together with locations and experiences. Labels like mountain pride, Berry’s penstemon, or Penstemon newberryi may be mere human indulgences, but they’re a means that helps enable sharing our experience of the plants we encounter. Whenever I see mountain pride in the wild, or review my photos of it, I’ll think back to my first backpacking trip in the high Sierras at Yosemite. Now I’ll also remember seeking it out in Lassen and at Mt. Shasta. Plants do that for me, becoming old friends I want to visit again. You likely have different plant friends, but I hope you’ll stay acquainted with them and meet new ones along the way.