Cobaea penstemon

With winter now in full swing, I long for summer’s warmth and color.  Going through my library of wildflower images is a nice diversion at this time of the year.  Thus, another installment in my “Wild Thing!” series is born.

The bell-shaped blooms of cobaea penstemon

Cobaea penstemon is also known as showy beardtongue and wild foxglove, though it is unrelated to the true European foxglove.  It is in the scrophulariaceae (figwort) family which is the same family as snapdragons.  In Kansas, it is found in the east 2/3 of the state, but its range goes north and east to Ohio and south as far as Texas.  It favors sandy, rocky hillsides and especially limestone outcrops.  It grows from 6 to 40 inches in height with strong stems that bear clusters of 2-6 blooms that range in color from white or pinkish to pale lavender.  The throats have prominent magenta or violet lines.  It normally blooms in May and June, and the plants may be 2 or 3 years old before they produce blooms.

Cobaea penstemon, habitat shot (Wilson Lake in the background)

The first time I ever saw these exquisite blooms was two years ago while hiking at Wilson Lake.  We walked into this area (pictured above) that had dozens of these beautiful flowers, gently swaying in the breeze.  The blooms are bell-shaped and very graceful and elegant.  The purple stripes around the throat are beautiful, and the details inside are amazing.

Details of the throat of cobaea penstemon, shot near Tuttle Creek Reservoir

In this close-up, you can see why it is called a “beardtongue.”  Look at the fuzzy stamen protruding from the throat.

Cobaea penstemon grow gracefully next to a post rock at Wilson Lake

Cobaea penstemon is closely related to another prairie penstemon, Buckley’s penstemon, that blooms around the same time.  The blooms of Buckley’s penstemon are not as showy or as large, being more elongated in shape than bell-like.  It is a perennial, and livestock will quickly eat new growth.  The blooms are also a larval host for the dotted checkerspot butterfly, and attract other various butterflies and moths with its sweet nectar.

Sources:  Wildflowers & Grasses of Kansas by Michael John Haddock;,

If you have any facts or information to share about this Wild Thing!, please feel free to post a comment.  I would like my posts to be both informative and entertaining, and any feedback is always appreciated.

Rocky outcroppings at Wilson Lake

We went to Wilson Lake over the weekend.  This lake is called “The Clearest Lake in Kansas” because most of the area that drains into the lake is covered with rocks and prairie rather than tilled farmground. While my husband biked the awesome trails there, I hiked and looked for wildflowers.  The first 10 minutes of my hike, I thought “Wow, there’s just not a lot blooming yet.” But then I slowed down a bit and started to really look, and discovered blooms were there.

My hike started at the Hell Creek Bridge and went south and west, following the contour of the lake up on the ridges above.  Let me tell you, if you still think Kansas is flat, you need to go to Wilson Lake, and you will change your mind quickly!  Wilson Lake sits smack dab in the middle of the Smoky Hills of north central Kansas.  The Smoky Hills are comprised of three types of rock:  Niobrara chalk, Dakota sandstone and greenhorn limestone.  The hills are covered with a thin layer of dirt with a mixed grass prairie growing on top.  Some fascinating rock formations exist in the Smoky Hills area.  Rock City is near Minneapolis and is an odd collection of sandstone concretions.  Mushroom Rock State Park contains sandstone pedestals (mushrooms).  The neighboring Kanopolis Lake contains great sandstone bluffs and caves.  Wilson Lake also has an area called the Rocktown Natural Area which contains some 15-20 foot tall sandstone spires, but I didn’t have time to visit this time out.

Lonely Post Rock

Post rock & wildflowers

The area is nicknamed “Post Rock Country” because when the pioneers arrived, there wasn’t much timber in the area and they used what was readily at hand – greenhorn limestone rock.  These old post rocks now make great photographic subjects, and there’s quite a few of them at the lake, the trails strategically placed so as to enjoy them.

I ran into another mountain biker (the self-designated “trail natzi”) who apparently is also a wildflower enthusiast.  He does a lot of volunteer work on the trails, and he seemed excited I was taking photos of the local wildflowers and was more than happy to identify them for me.  When I got home, I looked them up in my “Wildflowers & Grasses of Kansas” book by Michael John Haddock and found out he was 100% correct in his identifications. 

My favorite was the Cobaea penstemon.  They remind me of a foxglove.  I remember seeing bunches of the penstemon blooming last year when we visited the lake, but during the first part of my hike, I didn’t see any.  Later on, however, I was rewarded!  There were scads of them blooming on top of the ridges, perched among the sandstone rocks on the hillsides.  I had fun scrambling up the hillsides to find good clumps of blooms. 

Cobaea penstemon growing in rocky ledges with Wilson Lake in the background

Cobaea penstemon

Close-up of bell shaped Cobaea penstemon blooms













Other wildflowers blooming were wild onion, spiderwort, Dakota verbena, prairie ragwort, western wallflower and purple poppy mallow (which I’ve always called “cowboy rose”).  Also in a few spots I found some scarlet globe mallow, which is similar in appearance to a globe mallow that blooms in the Southwest, but much shorter.

Wild onion (and friend)


Dakota verbena

Prairie ragwort (I really liked the nice sidelighting on these)

Prairie ragwort

Western wallflower

Purple poppy mallow a/k/a cowboy rose

Scarlet globe mallow

When my husband finished his ride, we hiked a little over a mile west from the parking area at the bridge and came to a big juncture in the trail, called the Trail Cut Off.  I thought the trail sign was very appropriate!  I also have to wonder what wisenheimer came up with this idea 😉

The Cut Off

You can read more about the interesting history of the Smoky Hills and Wilson Lake area by clicking here.

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