BYU professor wants to make rare variety of penstemon available for landscaping

(Erin Alberty | Tribune file photo) Penstemon venustus and Penstemon pinifolius bloom in 2014 in the former backyard of Tribune reporter Erin Alberty in Salt Lake City. The Utah native plants helped to replace a carpet of invasive Myrtle Spurge. A professor at Brigham Young University has found a rare version of the penstemon species — pink in color — that he wants to reproduce to use for landscaping.

PROVO • Brigham Young University professor Mikel Stevens will never forget the day when he stumbled across something that was unlike anything he’d ever seen throughout his passion for plants.

Stevens had started studying the penstemon flowers of Utah when he made the discovery. He was driving along a two-wheel track near Soldier Summit in Spanish Fork Canyon when he spotted a penstemon that was different than any he had seen before.

"I really love being out in nature," Stevens said. "I was doing a different study, but on the drive home I came across a bright pink flower on the side of the road. I was shocked because I couldn't think of anything that should be that color of pink in that area."

The normal color of that particular penstemon plant is blue, and he had seen just a couple that were that pink out of hundreds. But this particular plant was also variegated, or exhibiting different colors, which was something he'd never seen before. He said he sat in his vehicle for a few minutes as he admired the pink flower with its striping and patterns.

"I concluded it wasn't artificial and everything told me it was a penstemon," Stevens said. "The more I sat there, the more I realized it was really, really unique. You look at tens of thousands of plants in a season and then stumble onto something that unusual — for me that is one of those wonderful, serendipitous moments."

As an expert on penstemon flowers, he understood the possibilities for such a unique specimen, the Daily Herald reported.

"Over time, I've developed my skills in plant breeding," Stevens said. "Almost 15 years ago I decided it was time for me to make a shift in my research focus to going back to looking for native plants that could be used in urban landscapes. I just finished authoring a book on the penstemon of Utah. There are more different species of penstemon in the state of Utah, so that really made me start paying attention and I started noticing their differences."

That began a journey that he has explored over the last few years as he has worked to turn that chance encounter into a plant that could be produced and used for novelty landscaping.

"We worked with it to try and propagate it," Stevens said. "It was in a clump, so I took one of the stems back and rooted it. We have been working with that ever since. I returned to the same location in the fall, anticipating that the smart thing to do would be to get seed from it — but I was stunned because the pods had developed but I couldn't find seeds in any of them. That told me that the unique blossom we were seeing, that whatever the genetic mutations that they also messed around with other things."

That was just one of the challenges he's faced as he has tried to grow that unique variety of penstemon.

"We grew the cutting for a number of years until we ended up with a disease with it," Stevens said. "We tried to cross it but we couldn't get it to cross. We have to do something to make it different than it is in nature to be able to get intellectual property rights. We eventually got two seeds from it that germinated and started to grow, but then they died. That told me it was possible but we have to keep trying and trying. We started to put it into tissue culture to artificially grow it, but we were unsuccessful at getting it rooted."

Stevens started working with professionals and sent some starts to a company in Oregon, but while they are also getting lots of starts, they haven't gotten it to root either.

"We're still working on that," Stevens said. "I was hoping to grow 1,000 plants out in a field, but we may not get the numbers we would want. If we get it to root, we would run some trials and continue to work with it."

He knows that this special variation of the penstemon won't become a common item because of its limited blossoming timeframe, but he sees it having its place because of how rare and unusual it is.

"It isn't going to be a blockbuster in terms of sales but I think those who like native plants and think those kinds of things are cool, I think it could have usefulness there," Stevens said. "It won't be something you put in front of a courthouse and have it bloom all summer, which is a major drawback. For two or three weeks it will have some really beautiful pink flowers and then it will continue its natural course and no longer produce flowers. Its leaves are a good color but it would just be green."

With a penstemon that Stevens calls “one-in-a-million,” he believes it could be a desirable native plant in the landscaping world.