Sunday, June 07, 2009

Indian Paintbrush

What’s blooming in the area: Russian olive, tamarix, tea and pink shrub roses, Apache plume peaked, honeysuckle, silver lace vine, prickly pear, yucca, daylily, red hot poker, hollyhock, fern-leaf globemallow, cheese, tumble mustard, stickseed, alfalfa, purple loco, scurf pea, purple clover, milkweed, oxalis, scarlet beeblossom, white evening primrose, nits and lice, bindweed, perky Sue, Hopi tea, goatsbeard, hairy golden and strapleaf spine aster, native dandelion, needle, rice, June, brome, crab and three awn grasses; buds on stickleaf; first hay cut.
What’s blooming in my yard, looking north: Catalpa, Dr Huey, Lady Banks and miniature roses, privet, German iris, golden-spur columbine, hartweg, Mexican hat, chocolate flower, coreopsis, blanket flower, anthemis, Moonshine yarrow; buds on butterfly weed and Parker’s Gold yarrow; cherries turning red.
Looking east: Floribunda and Persian yellow roses, peony, oriental, California and Shirley poppies, winecup, coral bells, cheddar pink, snow-in-summer, small-leaved soapwort, sea pink, Jupiter’s beard, snapdragons, Maltese cross, rock rose, pink evening primrose, pink salvia, Mount Atlas daisy; buds on coral beardtongue.
Looking south: Beauty bush, weigela, pasture, blaze, rugosa and rugosa hybrid roses, raspberry, sweet pea; morning glories beginning to come up.
Looking west: Flax, catmint, Rumanian sage, purple beardtongue, baptista; buds on sea lavender, blue salvia, white beardtongue.
Bedding plants: Moss rose, sweet alyssum, tomato.
Inside: South African aptenia and South American bougainvillea.

Animal sightings: Rabbit, hummingbird, gecko, bumble bees, mosquitoes, large black harvester and small red ants, small grasshoppers on other side of road, blue egg shell between front porch eave and peach.

Weather: Storms hovered in area but left no rain since 5/30/09; 15:51 hours of daylight today.
Weekly update: Indian paintbrushes pose a riddle, a flower that’s not a flower, a root that’s not a root, a leaf that punishes predators but assumes the plumage of pollinators, a product of the temperate north that survives the arid southwest, created once but still replicating.
Although I’d never seen one, I knew it last June as soon as I spotted the exotic scarlet petals that are really narrow bracts reflexed like squirrels’ tails from beneath lime-yellow snapdragon-style flowers. Some species of Castilleja appears in every field guide.
The one I saw yesterday may be the same plant. Both were growing in the middle of a widened arroyo where chamisa has been colonizing an area now outside the main flow of water. It’s not like it easily reproduces. The perennial integra’s a self-incompatible parasite with a low germination rate.
Both were solitary specimens, while whole-leaved paintbrushes usually appear in groups from Colorado down through Guerro in central México. In southern Colorado, enough plants exist for it to be the fourth largest component of the summer diet of white-tailed jackrabbits.
Verne Grant believes Castillejas were part of the northern temperate Arcto-tertiary flora that originally had yellow bracts and were pollinated by insects. When temperatures warmed in the Eocene, plants moved south and tropical hummingbirds migrated north. Based on the number of red species, he believes the genus was one of the first to adapt to new conditions.
When Elmer Wooton and Paul Standley documented the flora of New Mexico in 1915, they found twenty varieties, many in environments like those posited by Grant. Six were found primarily in the wet meadows and marshes around Chama, two in the Arctic-alpine zone of Truches Peak, and four in the Santa Fe mountains. Only Castilleja integra was described as common "throughout the State" in the "dry hills and plains."
The ruddiness intensifies on individual plants from the lower, greyish leaves tinged with purple to the uppermost bracts. However, those leaves, smooth on top and hairy beneath, no longer nourish the plants: the taproots put out lateral shoots that attach to nearby roots and transfer supplemental nutrients through the xylem.
Diethart Matthies grew four species, including integra, with and without parasitic hosts, and found they all could grow. Two could even flower. However, the ones without a host were very much smaller. Most don’t usually survive beyond the seedling stage if the roots don’t affix themselves to another.
The local Castilleja integra is quite indiscriminate in its choice. Santa Fe Greenhouse grows seedlings with fringed sage. Plants of the Southwest mixes the netted, brown seeds with blue grama grass. In Colorado they grow with liatris, penstemons, and lupines. The plant I saw was next to a chamisa with many dead branches and surrounded by broom snakeweed sprouts.
The roots apparently absorb whatever the host makes available, including alkaloids that can be toxic to butterfly larvae that feed on their leaves. They also can ingest selenium, but it’s not clear if they take it from the soil or a host like snakeweed.
The random presence of chemicals explains why the plant has been used medicinally by some and others have found it dangerous or useless. Leonora Curtin found Spanish-speakers in northern New Mexico used boiled flor de Santa Rita and sugar as a diuretic. When Michael Moore tried the tea for water retained by changes in weather and temperature, he found it only moderately useful.
Such contrariness is the crux of a riddle. David Tank and Richard Olmstead found Castilleja began as an annual and one mutation in California produced all the perennials that exist. Since that time it has developed an ability to produce unusual numbers of chromosomes, and that polyploidy has led to the large number of species, some of which can interbreed with others to spawn unclassifiable hybrids. Even the stable integra may have either 24 or 48 chromosomes.
For those who wish to use the plant as well as those who wish to understand it, the local Indian paintbrush remains a paradox, the most flamboyant presence in the arroyo, but the most mundane on the genus.
Notes:Websites for Santa Fe Greenhouse and Plants of the Southwest.Bear, George D. and Richard M. Hansen. Food Habits, Growth, and Reproduction of White-tailed Jackrabbits in Southern Colorado, 1966, cited by George A. Feldhamer, Bruce C. Thompson, and Joseph A. Chapman, Wild Mammals of North America, 2003 second edition.Curtin, Leonora Scott Muse. Healing Herbs of the Upper Rio Grande, 1947, republished 1997, with revisions by Michael Moore.Grant, Verne. "Historical Development of Ornithophily in the Western North American Flora,"
National Academy of Science Proceedings 91:10407-10411:1994.
Matthies, Diethart. "Parasite-host Interactions in Castilleja and Orthocarpus," Canadian Journal of Botany 75:1252–1260:1997.Moore, Michael. Los Remedios: Traditional Herbal Remedies of the Southwest, 1990.Tank, David C. and Richard Olmstead. "Geographic Disjunction or Morphological Convergence? The Evolutionary Origin of a Second Radiation of Annual Castilleja Species in South America (Subtribe Castillejinae: Orobanchaceae)," Botany and Biology Conference, 2005.Wooton, Elmer O. and Paul C. Standley. Flora of New Mexico, 1915, reprinted by J. Cramer, 1972.

Photograph: Indian paintbrush growing in the prairie arroyo, 6 June 2009.

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