National Horticultural Magazine, 30: 34-35 (Jan 1951)

The Mystery of Flathead Lake

This is an unsolved mystery story, a few clues to which are here offered.

Not many years ago Mr. George H. Murray, nurseryman and hybridizer, found growing wild near Flathead Lake southwest of Glacier Park, in western Montana four plants of an apparently still unidentified herbaceous Penstemon which he suspected might be natural hybrids or one hybrid of P. barbatus, for, since the plants are mat-forming, it is not impossible for them to have had a common ancestor. One plant he gave to Mrs. Anna Johnson of Butte, Montana retaining the other for himself. No further information at present is available from Mr. Murray who has moved away and so ends our clue.

Mrs. Johnson established her plant successfully in her garden and carefully collected the seeds. Now the plot thickens. Supporting the hybrid theory, second generation seedlings showed considerable variation and still more baffling, hospitality to the pollen of almost any other Penstemon; they ranged in height from 12" to 24", the foliage resembled the familiar barbatus, mats of green lanceolate leaves 2" to 4" in length, the flower stems rising gracefully above the basal growth with racemes of very lovely pink to red bells rather than tubular as in barbatus. They continued until late fall sometimes bravely blooming above the first snow blanket.

Plants with so improper a family history obviously cannot go out in general society, they do not even possess a name but must be inaccurately referred to as the Penstemons from Flatland Lake, inevitably and dangerously abbreviated to “Flathead Lake.” However murky the origin of this strain, its garden merits are clear; hardiness to any amount of cold, a marked tendency to longevity, adaptability to different climates and soil conditions, a very long period of bloom and the wide mats are easy to divide too.

It may be that tracking down the original progenies of these mystery plants is an horticultural puzzle demanding too much time and patience for troubled days. Mrs. Johnson has shared open pollinated seeds with other amateur Penstemon growers and has continued sowing it herself; as was to be expected the variations have increased, the rich rosy red color still predominates but there are soft baby pinks, some vivid almost orange scarlets, a few dark rich maroons. Mrs. Johnson writes, "I have so many different colors and shapes of foliage now in the garden from seeds of the same plant that it is impossible to unravel the puzzle. I must admit they are getting out of hand and sort of 'in my hair.' What shall I do with all these seedlings?"

Mrs. Johnson has also made some controlled crosses, the pollen of known pedigree but the seed parents, because of their unfailing hardiness and good constitution, selected from the equivocal progeny of the plant from Flathead Lake.

The pollen of P. grandiflorus produced one astonishing plant; the basal foliage is blunt somewhat like that of grandiflorus and more glaucous than in the Flathead Lake strain, but the stem leaves resemble the seed parent; the blossoms appear in the leaf-axils as many as six in a tier, set flush on the stem as in grandiflorus; the color is startling, a blended pink and blue which shifts like a neon sign from one to the other as you move to view it from another angle. In late September this plant had reached a height of 38" with nineteen tiers of blossoms and seed pods some of which were already ripening.

The pollen of "Firebird" ("Cherry Glow") produced taller plants than the female parent with larger flower of a pale pink color.

One plant that may prove to be very worthwhile was obtained with the English dwarf "Six Hills Hybrid" reportedly the offspring itself of P. rupicola and P. newberryi; a single plant, dwarf, compact, with the flower of a rich rosy color is referred to privately as "Flamingo."

It should be said that Mrs. Johnson is altogether an amateur gardener, though a skillful one with a very full life outside the realm of horticulture. Her work with the auriculas may have conditioned her for genealogical obscurities since the family trees of these exquisite primulas disappeared into the night three hundred years ago. Clearly Penstemons of merit are originating in her garden right now; perhaps the mystery of Flathead Lake can still be solved, perhaps not. The strain, if it is permissible to call it that, needs to be worked over, the subsequent crosses carefully recorded, studied, tested and possibly modified, at long last a few individuals may prove worthy of asexual propagation and naming, for the rest it would be possible to have a "Flathead Lake Strain" in Penstemons as we now have a "Pacific Strain" in Delphiniums and a strain of "Russell Lupines."

For amateurs who wish to try a few Penstemon crosses, Mrs. Johnson offers some tips. She says: "They are very easy to work with but of course not all species will cross, not even in the same groups. The important chromosome counts have been made of only a few species. Single out the stigma from the five stamens (four with anthers, one sterile) and dab on some pollen from whatever other Penstemon you want as the other parent. The stigma is always the "tail" on the ripe seed pod. If you have trouble making the pollen stick, put it thickly on the sterile stamen instead, and using the flat side of a toothpick, push it up against the stigma. The sterile stamen is usually bearded or woolly and will hold the pollen nicely and dust it thickly on the stigma. This isn't necessary as a freshly opened stamen-anther will do the job. If all the ripe anthers seem to have spilled their pollen, look for one that is fat and looks ready to burst. You will need a magnifying glass and a long needle and two more hands than you have! Be sure to cut off all the anthers in the blossom you are crossing or your work will be done for nothing. Also if there are lots of bees or other small insects around, cover the blossom with a very thin film of cotton batting or medicated cotton, just enough to keep out the insects. The cotton has no weight and sticks well. Do all the crossing in dry weather.

"It takes a lot of patience waiting for the results of crosses and there are lots of disappointments but hybridizing can be a lot of fun. Mr. Murray got me started and I look back on that day as a turning point in my otherwise uneventful life."