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.
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.
Previous wildflower posts: