The flowers are light lavender and the plant grows up to 15 inches tall on a sturdy stalk. The Blowout Penstemon has a shape similar to that of other penstemons with three petals below and two on top of a tubular flower. The flower looks a bit like it has a beard or a tongue that creates a landing pad for insects and gives this group of plants the common name “beardtongue.”
Bonnie Heidel, lead botanist with the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database, or WYNDD, teamed with colleagues from the Bureau of Land Management to survey the Blowout Penstemon, Wyoming’s only endangered plant.
“This is an amazing plant,” Heidel said. “It is a masterpiece of adaptation to a harsh environment and a picture of tranquility out in the open sand dunes. It actually grows better when it is blasted by sand — but surveys are definitely impeded by sandblasting winds since they make it tough on the biologist.”
Back in 1996 BLM wildlife biologist Frank Blomquist stood on top of a sand dune in central Wyoming near the Ferris Mountains. He spotted a plant he had never seen before, snapped a photo and sent it to experts. It wasn’t until 1999 that the Blowout Penstemon was confirmed in Wyoming.
Blomquist said the Blowout Penstemon is quite pretty and stands out amid the pale sand dunes when it’s in bloom.
“It also has a fragrance, unlike the other penstemons,” Blomquist said. “It smells like vanilla although when it is among Lemon Scurfpeas that have a strong scent, it can be a bit harder to detect.”
Prior to that, the Blowout Penstemon was thought to be found only in the Sandhills of north-central Nebraska. It was determined to be extinct by 1940 but was later re-discovered in 1968. Blomquist said subsequent research of the records after he reported his discovery indicated the plant might have been in Wyoming previously, so his finding was more of a re-discovery.
The plant is found in rather inhospitable habitat on nearly-bare dunes where the wind blows and the sand moves. Few plants are adapted to such a harsh setting, making the Blowout Penstemon a real stand-out in this type of habitat.
Since its discovery in Wyoming, the first survey was done in 2000 by Walter Fertig, a botanist with WYNDD, and Blomquist; it covered the dunes nearest the discovery in the Ferris area and other sand deposits. The second survey effort by Heidel was in 2004 and 2005, further expanding the known distribution in the Ferris area while ruling out other sand deposits. Another survey took place in 2011 to get to hard-to-access public lands and then again in 2015 and 2016 when funding and permission were granted to also search on nearby private lands.
“It was a learning process that took a succession of four different surveys using different methods, scopes and assumptions to complete a picture of the plant’s distribution,” Heidel said. “The efforts spanned 20 years since its first discovery.”
Conducting the surveys is tough work over long days. Heidel said the traveling to and from the dunes takes the better part of a day by road and on foot. The surveys are usually conducted in June when the plant is in bloom making it easier to spot and the weather is typically less likely to have snow, high heat, or strong winds.
Because the plants grow in dished-out sand dunes, called blowouts, they can’t be spotted from afar. Walking in loose sand can be quite slow and tedious, which is why the surveys result in long and arduous days.
Heidel said these survey results are the springboard for all other questions that need to be answered to ensure the survival of the species. Since Blowout Penstemon was discovered in Wyoming, Heidel and colleagues have seen breakthroughs in defining its habitat requirements, habitat change, pollination biology and seed ecology – all part of life on the loose sand. The plant also lives under the sand. Sand erosion is strongest in winter when the plant lies dormant below ground, waiting for spring.
The area where the plant is found on BLM lands is in the process of being designated as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern, or ACEC. Blomquist said this designation, which applies only to public lands in the designated area, helps limit new activities that might disturb the plant. The next step is to make a management plan to enhance the plant’s recovery.
The survey efforts give hope to the future of the Blowout Penstemon as more is learned of its adaptations to living in such inhospitable habitat.