Painting the Ditches Red

Indian Paintbrush ~ Castilleja indivisa

In Texas, nothing says ‘spring’ like the appearance of our most common Indian paintbrush. In time, its flowers will overspread the state, combining with bluebonnets to create a riotous display of color. Today, scattered orange and red patches along various Brazoria County roadsides were enough to evoke smiles; appearing a bit later than usual, the flowers seemed to be making up for lost time.

The plants’ vibrant color comes not from petals, but from bracts surrounding their flowers; the small, greenish-yellow flowers can be seen peeking out from the bracts in the first two photos.

Castilleja species are hemiparasitic. While they develop ordinary roots of their own, once those roots touch the roots of other plants — primarily grasses, but also bluebonnets — they penetrate those roots to obtain a portion of their nutrients. The flowers I found today seemed very well fed; both their color and their number hint at a very good season ahead, and a lot of smiles.

View of the flowers and bracts from above
A more delicately-colored paintbrush


Comments always are welcome.

74 thoughts on “Painting the Ditches Red

  1. Those are really gorgeous colors. I look forward to seeing if some wildflower seeds come up in patches behind our house.
    The only green things I’ve seen so far are garlic sprouts peeking through the mulch covering in the garden. It is a sunny spot that gets warmed a lot on sunny days.

    1. Wild garlic and wild onion are early bloomers here, too. I just looked in my archives, and found photos of both from early March, so it won’t be long.

      I found an assortment of floral treasure today: not masses of flowers, but some nice color. I even found a flower I’ve never seen before; that’s always a nice treat. Now all I have to do is figure out what it is!

    1. Even on a cloudy and somewhat dim day, their color does shine. While I was photographing in the area where that second plant was growing, someone stopped along the road and asked, “How in the world did you see those?” I thought, “How could you not?” Even the buds are eye-catching.

    1. Since hemiparasites also photosynthesize, they’re of less concern than holoparasites, which lack chlorophyll and completely rely on their host to complete their life cycle. Mistletoe’s another hemiparasite; although it can damage a tree over time if it becomes thick enough, that’s not an inevitable outcome.

      Castilleja species are root parasites, and generalists. In dry areas, sagebrush is a common host plant for certain paintbrush species. In other places, lupine species — like our Texas bluebonnets — are common hosts, and that’s all to the good for the paintbrush. Lupines have a symbiotic relationship with nitrogen-fixing bacteria, so any plant parasitizing them will have increased access to nitrogen. Indian paintbrush mixed with bluebonnets aren’t just pretty; they’re ensuring better growth, increased reproduction, and increased pollen output for themselves, all without damaging the bluebonnets. It’s a win-win!

    1. It will be a while before we see fields covered in these beauties, but I noticed that even the Wildflower Center page shows them blooming in every month of the year. There are a few locations where they always seem to appear ‘early,’ and that’s where I found these. On the other hand, you found the phlox!

      1. Without having seen a Facebook post showing violet-colored phlox a little south of Gonzales, I wouldn’t have thought to head down there so early in the season. After spending a good while at the site north of Gonzales that appeared in my post today, I figured there was nothing to be gained by hunting for the site further south.

          1. It occurred to me today that I’ve not been to Armand Bayou in a long, long time. I should make a visit and see what’s happening. I stopped going because their hours are so wonky (9-4 on Wednesday through Saturday, and 12-4 on Sunday).

    1. Or on that traditional holiday plant, the poinsettia. I grew up thinking those bright red leaves were the flowers’ petals, when in fact they’re also bracts. So much to learn, so little time.

    1. The bluebonnet-paintbrush combination is probably one of our state’s best-known and best-loved sights. I really hope it’s a good year for them. Drought may still be a problem in some areas, but they’re tough plants, and we’ve had quite a bit of rain. If they put on a show, you can bet I’ll be there to capture it for you.

  2. When I traveled to San Antonio in the eighties, I don’t recall ever seeing wildflowers. Reading your posts always makes me want to see your state again.

    1. I didn’t know when the practice of not mowing highway right-of-ways until after wildflowers set seed began; it was in the 1930s. Today, the highway department spreads about 30,000 pounds of seed each year — enough to cover a lot of roadside. If there weren’t flowers around when you were here, it might have been the wrong season: too early, or too late. I began traveling in and around San Antonio in the mid-80s, and do remember flowers along the highways. On the other hand, people fell so in love with them there are many more today.

  3. I’ve never seen one of these close up, and I certainly didn’t know about them siphoning nutrients off other nearby plants. Thanks, Linda, for adding to my knowledge base today! Glad to hear they seem to be thriving, even if they’re later than usual.

    1. The appearance of the first flowers seems late to me, since I have photos of them in my files from as early as January. But it’s still going to be a good month or more before the fields fill with them; sometimes it’s hard to say whether wildflowers are left over from last year, or early for this season. That’s part of the fun, of course. The flowers do what they will, and we just hang around and admire them!

  4. Root hemiparasite: new to me also. Thanks. And while I am in a mood of gratitude, I believe that many posts ago, which I think I found when looking something else up, you recommended Reading the Landscape of America by May Theilgaard Watts? Anyway I bought it and am immensely enjoying it. (but also a bit overwhelmed by it). That woman was gifted.

    1. The world of parasitism is fascinating. I’ve found a couple of holoparasites — dodder and broomrape — that are wholly dependent on their hosts. Then there are the Indian pipes: those ghostly, odd plants that are parasitical in a way I haven’t completely figured out yet. More research is required!

      I remember my recommendation of the Watts book. I’m glad you’re enjoying it, although I’m rather like you when it comes to being overwhelmed by the detail. I don’t ever delve into it without an assortment of botanical and geological dictionaries at hand. Still, her general insights are easy to understand, and that’s a great part of her gift.

    1. I suspect they’ll start appearing sooner rather than later. This weekend I bumped into some slightly ragged but colorful spiderwort, and lo! the mountain laurel at the Brazoria refuge is in bloom. Granted, the blooms are small, or obviously cold-nipped, but there’s a good bit of new growth on the tree, and the bees were having a time. It was good to see.

      1. I noticed this afternoon that my older mountain is blooming, but only on one section for now. Poor thing, it is so thin compared to what it once was. My spiderwort are gearing up for a show; many have started blooming!

  5. Such a vibrant red. Remember my amaryllis by morning? Well, really, it’s my husband’s since he planted it and tends to it because I would unintentionally kill it. Anyway, it now has seven beautiful red blooms on it!

    1. I sure do remember, and now I’ll be humming the song again — not at all a bad thing. It’s terrific that it has so many blooms. Your husband clearly knows what he’s doing! Red in all its forms is such a cheerful color. I’m sure that’s why so many people love our cardinals, and all of our seasonal plants like holly and poinsettias.

  6. Outstanding photographs!

    These excellent images brightened my already bright morning. I remember my first close examination of an Indian Paintbrush flower and being stunned that the color was in the bracts! A lesson in not judging a plant by just what you think is the flower.

    Each daily trip now is revealing more and more color. Buds and new leaves on trees. Yesterday we found a field covered in a lavender blanket of Canadian Toadflax. Glorious!

    For a moment, I thought you had been talking with my sister-in-law who often tells Gini “him a parasite”.

    1. The only flowerful fields I’ve seen so far contain buttercups, but there will be others soon enough. I love toadflax, and some of the sites say it blooms here from February into summer, so I ought to begin looking for it. This is the season when I begin developing a full-blown case of FOMO: fear of missing out!

      I saw something I’ve never before seen at the Brazoria refuge yesterday — hundreds of White-faced Ibis. After consulting the Cornell site, it seems most of them were non-breeding adults. It was quite a sight. Of course I didn’t have the equipment to get a decent photo of the whole crowd, but they were close enough to the road that I could manage photos of smaller groups, since they weren’t at all skittish. I sometimes see large groups of White Ibis, but this was a new experience — just fabulous. We’re suddenly awash in birds: Coots, White Ibis, Northern Shovelers, Teal. Funny how water in a pond will tempt them in!

      Hmmm… At least him-a-parasites wouldn’t dodder around!

    1. I’m not surprised. I’ve seen redbuds showing color here, and a few spiderworts. In another week or two, we’re going to be in full spring mode; I’d bet on it. It may take longer for masses of flowers to appear, but there’ s going to be plenty of color. I think we’re all ready.

    1. Well, there are these lines:
      “And there I met that heartless devil
      Your desert flower in his hand…”
      Who knows which species that paintbrush was ~ there are some gorgeous ones in the desert and the mountains.

      I do love listening to her play; the musicianship in that video’s phenomenal. I’d never heard of her until you mentioned her in the past. She’s going to be in Houston in April, and at a festival near Lockhart around the same time, but when I saw the ticket prices, I decided to pass.

      1. I haven’t been to a concert in years and the cost is mainly the reason. From what I read in the comments on some YouTube videos there are folks who follow bands around ala the Dead and I don’t know how people can spend that kind of money.
        Her band is a collection of talent for sure. Watching them perform it is obvious that they love each other and have a lot of fun playing together.

    1. They are. While I enjoy seeing them as a carpet of red, I really prefer them mixed with bluebonnets, or other flowers. They’re just as nice mixed in with yellow species.

    1. It’s funny ~ when I found the flowers, the old expression “painting the town red” came to mind. Of course they don’t bloom in town, so I decided that “painting the ditch red” would be perfect — especially since all of the ones I found were along roadsides. Like you, I’m eager to see more, and I’m going to try to arrange things so that I can do a little wildflower-wandering when their season comes.

    1. As hard as it is to believe, we are almost to March, so it seems to me that their time is nigh. I’ve been keeping an eye on the wild irises, and their leaves are already a couple of feet tall, so before long they’ll be developing buds, too. As much as I’m looking forward to spring, part of me would like to slow it down a bit — but nature doesn’t take my wishes into consideration.

    1. That they are. A couple of years ago they were magnificent. Whether they’ll rival that bloom is hard to say, but whatever comes, I’m ready to appreciate it. I’ll bet you are, too! Enough of housebound, thank you very much!

    1. If it’s sneezing you’re wanting, I could arrange for a special shipment of our oak, willow, and pine pollen for you. It could give your flowers — and your plain old dust — a run for their money. It’s not bad here yet, but there is a faint blush of green on the cars now. We know what’s coming.

    1. It is interesting. For one thing, that hemiparasitic nature means that it can’t be easily transplanted. You’d have to get the roots of the other plants that it’s connected too, and none of the plants — paintbrush or its friends — would be happy about that.

  7. It’s a beautiful flower and very interesting about that “hemiparasitic” I’ll have to pay more attention to how I use semi, demi, hemi. I guess when you’re painting the town red, it’s easier to remember that hemi (Demi Moore notwithstanding) is more than demi, just like those Dodge Chargers with the big hemi V8’s.

    1. And don’t forget the uncommon but impressive hemidemisemiquaver! It’s the 64th note in music: as fast as one of those Dodge Chargers. Here’s what Merriam-Webster has to say:

      “Hemidemisemiquavers are the fastest musical notes that are commonly played, and performing them well can stretch human technique to its limit. The term is mainly used in Britain, where eighth notes are called “quavers,” sixteenth notes are called “semiquavers,” and thirty-second notes are called “demisemiquavers.” In the United States, “hemidemisemiquaver” is likely to be used humorously, occurring especially as a clever substitute for “moment” or “bit,” as in “the concert ended not a hemidemisemiquaver too soon.”

      It took me a while to find a video, but sure enough, I found one, and it’s quite fun.

  8. Indian Paintbrushes are one of my favorite flowers. But for whatever reason, they seem to mostly grow in the mountains around here, so I don’t see them much. But at the moment, what we’re mostly seeing around here is 10 inches of new snow…

    1. When I looked at the forecast for your area, I saw mention of even more snow. That surprised me; apparently I think of Oregon (at least the western, coastal parts) as more temperate than it is. The paintbrushes must like it, though. When I looked at the BONAP maps, I found at least eighteen different species in your state. What was especially interesting is that they tend to divide themselves; some appear only in the eastern part of the state, and some hug the coast. Clearly, it’s an adaptable flower — and beautiful in all its forms.

      1. We are normally temperate. We’ll sometimes get snow in the winter, but it’s not a regular thing. This snowfall has set a record for being the most we’ve gotten this late in the year. Things are getting weird, last year we had snow in April. Seems like unusual weather, at both extremes, is becoming more common.

        1. Well, at least I’ve found one commonality between Houston and Portland. I just spent five minutes looking at the traffic situation over there. We can’t drive in a tenth/inch of snow, let alone ten inches.

  9. We can probably handle a tenth, but two or three inches causes chaos. I remember when I first moved from Minnesota; they had four inches of snow in Portland and the city shut down. I about fell off the bed laughing.

    To be fair, there are more hills in Portland than in my Minnesota hometown, and far fewer snow plows…

    1. The old cost/benefit analysis does come into play, and rightly so. We get snow perhaps once a year: icy conditions a little more often. The expense of keeping the numbers of plows and sand trucks needed for the occasional mess isn’t worth it: easier to shut things down for a day or two.

  10. I absolutely love these. Beautiful color and beautifully photographed, especially that first photo. I’ll admit to often not realizing there are bracts involved in some of the colors I stumble upon when hiking. And I’d not heard of hemiparasitic plants. That’s fascinating. So many different ways various species try to make their lives easier, even at the possible expense of others. Reminds me of another “higher functioning” species I can think of.

    1. A lot of Euphorbia species have bracts, too; I was astonished to find that our splashy snow-on-the-mountain and snow-on-the-prairie are splashy because of their bracts. The wild poinsettia’s a Euphorbia, too.

      Some of our most beautiful spring sights, like fields filled with a combination of bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush, result from the hemiparasitic nature of the paintbrush, which thrives as a companion plant to the bluebonnets. It’s almost impossible to transplant paintbrush because of its dependence on other grasses and forbs. Separate it from its companions, and it doesn’t do so well.

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