Friday, August 4

In the Yellow Palette

In the comment section of one of the other wildflower posts, Candyinsierras asked if we have Indian paintbrushes in the Yukon. The Indian paintbrushes that I grew familiar with while growing up in Minnesota had large bright scarlett heads, and we don't have that sort of showy paintbrush here. Ours are mostly yellow, a few are orange, and some call the orangy ones Indian paintbrushes. Perhaps they're right when they call them that, but they're 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 lovely the yellow paintbrush is in the photo from oldest son above. They are very nice, but they don't say, "Hey look at me! Aren't I spectacular?" the way those big red Minnesota paintbrushes do.

In defense of my ignorance of the proper names for the varieties of Yukon paintbrushes, let me explain that there are over 200 species of paintbrushes, and the majority of those species grow in western North America. That's a lot of species to keep straight, and if you've done any perusing of paintbrush photos, you know there isn't much difference in the look of the different types of paintbrushes. And just to make things even more confusing, paintbrushes of the same species like to mix it up with their characteristics to keep the expert wildflower identifier on his/her toes. One plant of a particular paintbrush species will have a hairy stem, for instance, while it's supposedly identical twin living right next door will have a smooth, freshly shaven stem. Don't you love it when flowers get tricky like that?

Paintbrushes are members of the figwort family, and the colored tips that we admire aren't really flowers at all, but leafish bits. Leafish bits is a technical term, by the way, for something or other. So paintbrushes are not flowers, but flower wannabes that make a pretty good show anyway, and get an A for effort from me.

What you won't see on their report card is "plays well with others." It's not that paintbrushes don't like being with others, but that they like being with others too much. They are like clinging vines in their relationships with other plants, or even more accurately, like the mosquitoes or lice of the plant world. Yes, pretty as they are, they are parasites. They 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. That means that if you decide you want paintbrushes in your wildflower garden, it's a mistake to dig up a single paintbrush plant for transplant. No, you must dig up 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 grasses around it along with it, and 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 reseeding or replanting every year if I wanted to keep paintbrushes in my garden.
Click on photo for larger view. You'll find all of the previous wildflower posts here.

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