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Native Wildflowers of the North Dakota Grasslands

JPG -- species photo

Slender Beardtongue (Penstemon gracilis)

A plant found all over North Dakota, slender beardtongue occurs from Ontario to British Columbia south to Nebraska and along the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains at elevations up to 7,500 ft.

Slender beardtongue is perennial from a short rootcrown. In North Dakota, plants grow about 12-18 inches tall. Leaves are narrow, opposite, and about three inches long at the base of the plant, but are reduced in size upwards. The leaves are hairless, but have a few widely spaced teeth on the margins. About 10-15 pale violet-blue flowers about 3/4 inch long are clustered at the top of the plant. Capsules about 1/4 inch long contain the tiny, dark brown seeds.

Look for slender beardtongue during May to August in native prairie pastures. Grazing, unless extremely heavy, does not seem to lessen the abundance of this plant. A few root decoctions of the beardtongues were used for toothache by the Amerindians, but I found no mention of any economic uses for slender beardtongue. This is true for many of our native plants, because of the poor historical records and relatively late settlement of the northern Great Plains.

Slender 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 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. Gracilis means "slender" in botanical Latin. Slender beardtongue was first described for science in 1818 by the eminent English botanist-naturalist Thomas Nuttall (1786-1859). He visited the Mandan villages along the Missouri River in 1810-1811.

Previous Species -- Crested Beardstongue (Penstemon eriantherus)
Return to Scrophulariaceae (The Figwort Family)
Next Species -- Large Beardtongue (Penstemon grandiflorus)

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