Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
A plant of western North Dakota, crested beardtongue has been collected only a few times north or east of the Missouri River in counties along the River. Elsewhere, the plant ranges west to British Columbia and south to northwest Nebraska and northeast Colorado at elevations under 7,500 ft.
Like many of our sturdy prairie plants, crested beardtongue is perennial from a woody stem base (caudex) and a heavy taproot. Plants are about a foot tall in our area, but may be half again as tall farther south. The leaves have short hairs and can be smooth-margined or toothed. Basal leaves are about 3 inches long and an inch wide. The beautiful lavender-to-pale purple flowers are grouped in clusters about 5 inches long. Each flower is about an inch long with a tube 1/2 inch wide. Coarse yellow hairs protrude from the tube, which is nearly closed by a crest on the lower lip. Fruit is a capsule about 1/2 inch long filled with dark, angular seeds.
Look for crested beardtongue in late June or early July on clay soils on the prairie or sides of buttes. Plants seem to withstand moderate or heavy grazing in our area, but not in regions where soils are dryer and warmer.
Crested beardtongue is a member of the figwort family (Scrophulariaceae), which contains about 4,000 species. The family name was derived from the supposed cure of scrophula and figwarts attributed to members of this group by the early European herbalist-physicians. Except for the foxglove, the source of the heart stimulant digitalis, none of the members of this family is of noteworthy economic importance, but many, like the snapdragon, are cultivated for their handsome flowers.
Beardtongues get their name from the single sterile stamen that bears a tuft of hairs. This thread-like male organ protrudes from the flower like a "tongue." There are four fertile stamens as well, hence the generic name Penstemon from the Greek paene, "almost", and stamon, "thread" (filament) or "almost a stamen." There are about 300 species in this genus; most are found in the western United States. We have seven Penstemons in North Dakota. The specific epithet eriantherus stems from the Greek erion "wool" and anthera "anther" in allusion to the tuft of hairs found on the sterile stamen instead of the pollen-bearing anther found on normal, fertile stamens.
Crested beardtongue was first described for science by the eminent German botanist Frederick Traugott Pursh (1774-1820) in his monumental Flora Americae Septentrionalis of 1814. He was the first to publish on the many new plants collected by the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-1806.