Gairdner’s Penstemon (Penstemon gairdneri)
We found these lovely, endemic penstemons on an impromptu hike just south of Ellensburg, WA, on our way back to Portland from Leavenworth this past spring. If you find yourself in Ellensburg, and you’re heading south toward Yakima, do yourself a favor, and instead of taking the interstate (82), look for signs toward “Canyon Road” or Highway 821 through the Yakima River Canyon. The drive is only a few minutes longer, and the scenery is exquisite. If you have an hour or two (and some energy), hike one of the several trails heading up the steep grassy slopes on either side. We took the “Rattlesnake Dance Trail”, and were grandly rewarded for our efforts. The trail climbed quickly, and we soon had spectacular views south down the river valley, and north over the farmland south of Ellensburg. The landscape began to look unreal, like something from a Thomas Hart Benton painting or a model railroad set.
We must have encountered upwards of thirty different wildflower species on the mile or so that we climbed, many of which were new to us, including this pretty penstemon. There are many species of penstemon native to the northwest. These ones are locally common in low-to-mid elevation grasslands in Oregon and Washington, east of the Cascades.
Named after Dr. Meredith Gairdner (1809-1837), a natural historian who worked for the Hudson Bay Company on the Columbia River. He was sent there to help with outbreaks of smallpox. Shockingly, he is known for digging up the body of an local Indian chief, Comcomly, severing his head and sending it back to England in order to study the head-flattening practice of the Chinook. Gairdner witnessed two eruptions of Mt. St. Helens in 1831 and 1835, before dying of tuberculosis in Hawaii in 1837 at the age of 28!