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In the Yellow Palette

Back in Minnesota, we had Indian paintbrushes—large showy paintbrushes with bright scarlet heads. We don’t have those fancy-schmancy paintbrushes here. Ours are mostly yellow; a few are orange. Some people call the orangey ones Indian paintbrushes, and they may be right about that name, but those are not the same paintbrushes Minnesotans call Indian paintbrushes.

This is not to say that the less showy paintbrushes of the Yukon aren’t perfectly nice. You can see how attractive they are in the photo from oldest son above. But they don’t say, “Hey look at me! Aren’t I spectacular?” the way those big red Minnesota paintbrushes do. 

I don’t know what is the correct common name for this variety of Yukon paintbrush. In defense of my uncertainty, I’ll tell you that there are over 200 species of paintbrushes and the majority of them grow in western North America. That’s a whole lot of species to keep straight, and if you’ve done any perusing of paintbrush photos, you know there might not be many visible differences among the various types of paintbrushes. And just to make things even more complicated, paintbrushes of the same species like to mix it up with their features in order to keep even an expert wildflower indentifier—like Judy K, for instance—on her toes. One plant of a particular paintbrush species will have a hairy stem, for example, while it’s supposedly identical twin living right next door will have a smooth, freshly shaven stem. Can you blame me for being confused?

Paintbrushes are members of the figwort family, and the colored tips that we admire aren’t really flowers at all, but  coloured leafish bits. (The term leafish bits is, of course, technical jargon.) Paintbrushes, then, are not flowers, but flower wannabes making a rather good show of it.  I shall give them an A for effort.

What you won’t see on their report card is a comment from the teacher saying  they play well with others. It’s not that paintbrushes don’t like being with others, but rather, that they like being with others a little too much. They are the clinging vines, or more precisely, the mosquitoes or lice of the plant world. That’s right: they are very pretty parasites. Paintbrushes attach their roots to the roots of nearby plants and suck nourishment from them, and they’ll die if you remove them from the life blood of their next-door neighbor. This means that if you decide you want paintbrushes in your wildflower garden, it’s a mistake to dig up a single plant for transplant. No, you must take the whole neighborhood with it so that the paintbrush has the plants it likes to parasitize living closeby.

I’ve transplanted paintbrushes and I knew enough to bring the surrounding grasses along, too. My paintbrushes did fine for a couple of years, but then died out. What I didn’t know is that it’s only once a whole colony of paintbrushes is established that you can count on natural reseeding to keep the colony going. With the number of plants I had—three or four altogether—I needed to help nature out a little by replanting every year if I wanted to keep paintbrushes in my garden. But all in all, given the complicated relationships paintbrushes thrive in, its probably best to leave them where they are and enjoy them there.

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Reader Comments (6)

(The term leafish bits, is, of course, technical jargon.)

And anyone who is intimidated by technical jargon should feel free to substitute bracts for leafish bits.


July 21, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterthreegirldad

No, they aren't as showy as real Indian paintbrushes but I like your Yukon paintbrushes' delicate beauty just the same.

July 21, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDorothy

And anyone who is intimidated by technical jargon should feel free to substitute bracts for leafish bits.

I grudgingly admit that might work. But I prefer to wow everyone with my technical knowledge.

July 21, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterrebecca

"I grudgingly admit that might work. But I prefer to wow everyone with my technical knowledge."

That made me laugh outloud! : D

July 21, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKim from Hiraeth

We look forward to seeing the local variety (orange with scarlet and sometimes a bit of yellow) of these come into bloom each spring along with Indian Blankets--SO 'Oklahoma'! I have seen the yellow variety from time to time in this area, but of course it's not nearly as common.

I never knew Indian paintbrushes were parasitic. They are so common on the prairies in Colorado, and even up in the high mountain valleys, that I guess I've always just taken them for granted. The one thing that I think about every time I see them is: my husband is color blind and will see his first paintbrush when he gets to heaven. Until then, he just tries to believe me when I say this or that field is full of colorful paintbrushes because he sees nothing different or unusual at all. I've seen lots of yellow ones, but orange is the norm. However, one of the most beautiful displays I ever saw was in Glacier National Park a few years ago and they were brilliant magenta. Thanks once again for the lesson. I miss them!

July 25, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterColumbine

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