Vascular Plants of North Carolina
Account for Small's Beardtongue - Penstemon smallii   Heller
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Section 6 » Order Scrophulariales » Family Plantaginaceae
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AuthorHeller
DistributionNearly throughout the mountains and the extreme western Piedmont foothills. Highly disjunct to the north-central Piedmont (specimens from Guilford and Orange counties).

This is a Southern Appalachian endemic, found from northwestern NC and adjacent TN south to northern GA and northern AL.
AbundanceFairly common to frequent, at least locally, in the mountains; ranges north to Mount Jefferson (Ashe County); not known from VA. Seemingly uncommon in the far southwestern counties. Locally uncommon in the far western Piedmont close to the Blue Ridge Escarpment; likely extirpated now from Guilford and Orange counties.
HabitatThis is a species that favors rocky places, such as on cliffs, open rocky slopes, roadbanks where soils are thin or rocky, and forest margins where somewhat rocky. It tends to favor, or at least be more common on, rocks that are mafic or calcareous (high pH soils) than on acidic soils. It often grows in similar places as to P. canescens, but that species has more affinity for acidic rocks and is therefore more widespread.
PhenologyBlooms from May to June, and fruits mainly in July.
IdentificationThis species is very similar to P. canescens, the other widespread purple-rose flowered species in the mountains. P. smallii grows about 1.5' tall, is smooth to slightly pubescent on the stem, and has scattered paired, opposite leaves along the stem as do others in the genus. Also like others, each leaf tends to be lanceolate, about 4" long and nearly 1" wide near the base, which is squared-off and clasping the stem. As with that other species, it has a showy inflorescence of rose-purple flowers at the summit, each being tubular with only a small flaring of the tube, and reaching about 1.3" long, with white on the lip and purple stripes inside. There are two features to separate these two species: 1) P. smallii has smooth/glabrous leaves and a glabrous stem between the leaf nodes, whereas P. canescens is pubescent on the leaves and mid-stem; and 2) P. smallii has the bracts beneath each of the whorls in the inflorescence large and leaf-like, several inches long and about 1" wide, though becoming smaller toward the top. In P. canescens, only the bract below the lowest whorl of flowers is large and leaf-like, and the others are small and narrow. The effect, normally easily seen a few feet away, is that the inflorescence of P. canescens is "naked" and consists solely of flowers and their stalks, whereas in P. smallii the large leaves of the stem seem to extend far into the inflorescence, with leaves intermixed with the flowers. The very rare (in NC) P. calycosus is similar, but it has the lower lobes of the flower essentially equaling the length of the upper lobes, such that the flower is squared off when viewed from the side; P. smallii and P. canescens have the lower lobes extended beyond the upper, like a tongue sticking out.
Taxonomic CommentsNone

Other Common Name(s)Blue Ridge Beardtongue
State RankS3
Global RankG3
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