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Medicinal Plants of the SW: Penstemon Ambiguus


Penstemon ambiguus


Common names: Sand Penstemon, Bush Penstemon, Moth Penstemon, Phlox Penstemon, Gilia Penstemon, Cows Tobacco

 By: Gilbert Escamilla, Timothy Kellywood, Thomas Medina, and Andrew Moya (Summer 2001)
 Photo by: Jeffrey Wong, Desert Dawn


Historically, Penstemon spp. have earned a place in ethnobotany, by the role they played in the treatment of sexually transmitted diseases.  
All parts of the plant have been used for various medicinal preparations, including poultices and teas for both internal and external use. It is also known that medicine men of various Native American tribes have employed Penstemon spp. into their treatments. 
Dried Penstemon spp. were ground into a fine powder, which would later be traded or sold. The actual ingredients were withheld from the consumer, to refrain from divulging any secret recipes. 



Penstemon, whose name means 5 (pente) stamens (stemon) referring to its 5 stamens, 4 of which are fertile while the fifth is often bearded giving rise to the common name, mostly native to western North America and Mexico; popular in England.Penstemon ambiguus prefers sand in the wild, but will endure dry clay, and is stunningly beautiful when well grown. From May to August, depending on the year, it has a moderate growth rate, which produces a mass of delicate pale to dark pink blooms, which can propagate 32,000 seeds per ounce. When not in bloom, the plant is difficult to recognize. The narrow-throated flowers, carried in a raceme-like inflorescence, expand to very wide lobes, the lower leaves are larger and project at about a 30-degree angle from the throat, the petals are white, with a reddish throat, and pink outer surface, the staminode is red (Nold, 98).       
The plant can reach a height of anywhere from 8 to 24 inches, and a width of 6 to 18 inches. Harvesting from the wild is not advised. This may cause damage to other plants in fragile communities.

 Photo by: Andrea Wolfe, Ohio State Univ. Penstemon Website

 Photo by: James Reveal, Univ. Maryland.

Medicinal Uses:

Many Native Americans used Penstemon for some of the following reasons:

  • External: The Dine'(Navajo) used it to increase recovery rate of open flesh wounds, by inhibiting inflammation (Verbascoside). Which then increases the muscular activity of new regenerative growth of tissues from bullet or arrow wounds, and flesh burns (Catalpol). Regionally it has also been used for compresses, ointments, creams, balms, foot soaks, bath herbs, and as suppositories.
  • Internal: It was also boiled to produce a refreshing drink for internal injuries, and coughs.
  • Veterinarian Use: It was used for sick or injured animals. For external use abrasions, flesh wounds, broken bones. To prolong livestock growth for survival.  



 Chemical Make Up:




The dominant medicinal chemical we found in Penstemon ambiguus was catalpol. Catalpol has many functions, such as to stimulate production of adrenal cortical hormones which increases the production of sex hormones. Some of its possible uses are mending injuries, and increasing the production of the androgens that the adrenal gland yields for increasing muscle mass. Next, Verbascoside, which inhibits inflammation, is also found in Penstemon ambiguus. It inhibits inflammation by inhibiting the reactive site of 5-lipoxygenase to produce leukotrienes(5-HPETE, LTA4, LTC4, LTD4, LTE4). Some believe that as the reaction moves forward, so does the change within the biological system to stimulate the surrounding tissue (inflammation). Then there is also a chemical compound called Specioside which proliferates cell growth. Some of the other chemicals in Penstemon ambiguus include, nemoroside, ambiguuside, martynoside, foliamenthic acid, and menthiafolic acid.


Mayes, Vernon and Lacy, Barbara. Nanise' A Navajo Herbal. Navajo Community College Press, 1989, Tsaile, Arizona. Pg. 11.  
Arslanian, Robert and Anderson, Tara and Stermitz, Frank. Journal of Natural Products. Colorado State  University, Nov-Dec 1990, Fort Collins, Colorado. Vol. 53, Pg. 1485-1489.                                                            
Heflin, Jean. Penstemons The Beautiful Beardtongues of New Mexico. Jackrabbit Press, 1997, Albuquerque, New Mexico. Pg. 3.                                                                                                                                                           
Nold, Robert. Penstemons. Timber Press, 1999, Portland Oregon. Pg. 97-98.                                                          
Hartung, Tammi. Growing 101 Herbs That Heal. Storey Books, 2000. Pg. 201.                                           
Penstemon Website by: Andrea D. Wolfe                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

Special Thanks To:  
Lu MacDonald


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Updated February 13, 2008

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