Someone once asked the composer Arnold Schoenberg if he wasn’t the person who wrote all that awful modern music. He replied, “No one else wanted the job, so I had to take it on.”
That’s pretty much how I felt when I wrote the penstemon book. It was a lot of work. The book is now out of print, though still available as print-on-demand from various booksellers, but without Cindy’s watercolors.
Instead of the glamorous career in horticulture that almost everyone assured me would be my reward for all this effort, nothing much changed for me, which was just as well. I’ve never understood why people think they can read minds. My motives in writing the book were (1) to show off my wife’s watercolors, (2) to correct some persistent nonsense in horticulture (that didn’t work), and (3) to correct some errors (gulp) in nomenclature (that didn’t work, either).
I did get emails that took hours to download on the old dial-up connection. One of them crashed my computer, and I had to call tech support to see what was wrong, and they said this huge file had been sent, with the title “penstemon mystery”.
I had tech support delete the email, and wondered why anyone would write a mystery story involving penstemons. It wasn’t until a year or so later that it dawned on me that the sender had hoped for an identification, and meant to title the email “mystery penstemon”. (Incidentally, the book does appear in the episode “Garden of Death” in the Midsomer Murders TV series.)
For one thing, as I wrote in the book, if you know where you are on a map, the number of penstemon species in one particular place is not very great, so you only have a few choices. You will not find species endemic to the Uintah Basin in the San Gabriel Mountains, and you will not find species endemic to islands off Baja California in a suburb of Detroit.
For another thing, identification of penstemons through photographs is practically impossible unless the private parts are exposed for all to see. The staminode, the anthers, and so on.
I took this picture to illustrate my point.
You can hardly tell anything about this except that it’s obviously in Section Glabri. I bought the plants as Penstemon cyananthus, which they are not. The staminode is bearded in that species, and these plants have smooth staminodes, making them (probably) P. strictus. I was sitting on the front porch when I took this picture, and, as some people know, a common name for P. strictus is “porch penstemon.” Never mind.
I say “probably” because the plants could also be blue-purple forms of the ‘Rondo’ mix, a very common imposter among supposedly pure species, and the source of (probably again) all the garden hybrids people think they’re seeing.
One or the other, but not Penstemon cyananthus. Which is what I wanted. I also wanted to take pictures of the staminode to prove my point, but those didn’t come out very well, so I’m not really sure what my point was. Maybe I don’t have one.
The title was funny, anyway.