A Rarer Use of Yellow

Yellow Indian paintbrush (Castilleja indivisa) and friends

In the case of this Indian paintbrush, Emily Dickinson’s words ring true:

Nature rarer uses yellow
Than another hue,
Saves she all of that for sunsets,
Prodigal of blue —
Spending scarlet like a woman,
Yellow she affords
Only scantly and selectly,
Like a lover’s words.

Yellow is afforded only scantly and selectly to this species of Indian paintbrushes; the flowers usually appear in shades of red and orange. And yet, there they were: more than a dozen yellow delights scattered along a portion of highway in Lavaca County.

Still in their prime, surrounding their actual flowers with both white and yellow bracts, they were among this year’s prettiest blooms. Had I not stopped to photograph an early April bluebonnet field, I might have missed them; their presence served as a useful reminder that apparently nondescript ditches and culverts can offer up treasure.

True flowers peeking out from the bracts
Yellow and white combinations evoked lemon meringue pie
Seen from above, the flower presents a pleasing almost-symmetry
Crinkled edges of just-opening flowers matched those of developing leaves

Comments always are welcome.

71 thoughts on “A Rarer Use of Yellow

    1. I do, too: or lemon chiffon pie, or lemon bars, or lemon sherbet. Even a nice lemonade will do in a pinch. It was fun to be reminded of all that by a flower.

  1. Lovely sequence of pictures. Now you’ve got me thinking about yellow in nature. Seems to me it’s not that rare. Lots of yellow in the garden and in the fields. In fall, the trees are awash with yellow.

    1. Who knows? Perhaps Emily had been experiencing a dearth of yellow in her world when she wrote this. There’s no question that yellow abounds in gardens and fields, and it not doubt filled her garden. Still, the lines work perfectly for this flower, where yellow is definitely the exception and not the rule!

    1. This is only the third time I’ve found them. Once was near Monthalia, and the other was next to the parking area at the Hamby Nature Trail on Follett’s Island. I was surprised to find so many at this spot. It wasn’t so very far from the field where I found the pink bluebonnet.

    1. That sounds like my relationship with blue. I enjoy the color in nature — skies, water, flowers — but I don’t wear it: except for turquoise. Lemon meringue pie always is acceptable.

  2. In your last picture you caught a good juxtaposition of crinkled inflorescence edges with crinkled leaf edges.

    Even within the yellow Indian paintbrushes I’ve observed a range of hues, with the palest ones qualifying for what I think of as cream-colored.

    Your “useful reminder that apparently nondescript ditches and culverts can offer up treasure” is something I’ve long found true. A closer look at something glimpsed while driving by has often enough yielded treasures.

    1. I’ve seen those crinkles before, but usually they’re on the emerging leaves of very young plants. I really like them. I found some cream-colored flowers a couple of years ago, but they were on the decline. Finding pristine examples like these was quite a treat.

      At my last vision check, my eye doctor again expressed amazment at my peripheral vision. He said I probably rank among his top ten patients when it comes to the vision field test; even more surprising is the fact that I’ve consistently improved. I asked if years of scanning roadsides while driving might be contributing. He pondered that for a while before suggesting there might be a research project lurking there somewhere.

  3. There’s even a dedicated yellow species, Castilleja citrina, which is in central-north Texas and into western Oklahoma. I haven’t come across many paintbrush this year, just haven’t been in the right habitat. So little time, too many things to see!

    1. I learned today that there are a couple of other yellow paintbrush species that grow in the west and northwest. They’re quite pretty, but it’s more fun to find these outliers!

  4. Yellow is not normally a favorite color of mine but my entire deck is planted with yellow this year with a yellow outdoor rug. If ever we needed cheerful nature, this is the year.

    1. Isn’t that the truth. Sunflowers against a blue sky are one of my favorites, but yellow of any sort can bring a smile and lifted spirits — especially on gloomy, cloudy days.

  5. I agree, Linda. I can be counted on to stop and admire yellow paint brush whenever I come across it. I still remember prime examples in the Trinity Alps of northwest California, and along a roadside in southern New Mexico.

    1. Now I’m wondering. What color would naturally yellow paintbrush become if a ‘sport’ showed up among them? Would they be white? Pink? That just went on my ‘to be explored’ list. I wasn’t aware how many naturally yellow paintbrush species can be found in the mountain west and northwest until today, but I’m certainly glad you’ve been able to enjoy them. I wonder if your New Mexican paintbrush might have been one of the orange species; they do appear in west Texas, and they might well show yellow from time to time.

          1. And possibly more fun… I do go through the photos once a year or so and at least have an idea of what I have. Also, they are organized time wise, which helps. Given my journal for the past 23 years, I also know where I was at any given point.

    1. Aren’t they? I enjoy a softer yellow, and these were especially nice. They were growing in combination with bluebonnets, coreopsis, flax, and phlox — and all at a perfectly accessible roadside!

  6. Now you’ve got me hungering for lemon meringue pie!! These are truly lovely flowers, Linda. Maybe it’s the rareness in their color that catches one’s attention, but looking closer at the symmetry in their shape can’t help but make you appreciate their beauty.

    1. Just as every musician needs an audience, every flower deserves an appreciator, and I’m more than willing to fill that role! The shape of these makes them especially adapted for pollination by hummingbirds, which have long bills capable of reaching into the flowers. It’s so interesting to see which creatures pollinate which flowers; there’s something for everyone!

    1. One of the things I enjoy about paintbrushes that show variation like this is the way the bracts can help to highlight the actual flowers. In the bright, strongly red or orange blooms, the little flowers are easier to overlook; in these, they really stand out (although catching the flowers at just the right stage of bloom helped, too).

  7. Lovely shots of a very interesting flower (especially the one with butterfly fluttering by. “Paintbrush”, indeed, the species seems to be dipped in everything from white, to fuchsia, to scarlet (spent like a woman, ha!), to orange, to orange-and-white pinwheels, and now to this very sunny yellow. Happiness in a ditch!

    1. I purposely didn’t mention the butterfly, wondering if anyone would notice it. You did! Perhaps your general attentiveness to flying creatures made you more aware of it. I didn’t know until yesterday that there are other paintbrush species that normally are yellow. Now I’m wondering: if a yellow paintbrush produces an oddity, what color would that be?

      I smiled at ‘happiness in a ditch.’ I started calling a variety of flowers (spider lilies, and so on) ‘ditch diamonds’ a couple of years ago. I think these might qualify as gems, too. In fact there’s a yellow paintbrush that carries gem color in its name: Castilleja purpurea var. citrina.

  8. What a find! And you’re so right, that poem says it all. I really like your first photo: the yellow paintbrush, followed by the more typical reds, with a butterfly coming in for a landing. That’s a great shot, Linda!

    1. That was a photo-bombing butterfly, Tina. I didn’t realize I’d caught it mid-flight until I looked at the photos on the computer. There were butterflies everywhere that day, and several species. They do love Indian paintbrush; even the swallowtails were feasting.

  9. A very pleasant soft yellow. One of my grandmothers used to say something about “never set a scanty table” for guests, that’s about the only time I remember hearing the word.

    1. I can’t remember hearing ‘scanty’ when I was a kid, but I occasionally heard references to girls who were scantily clad (not good) and scant cups of flour or sugar (good, in the right recipe). I was surprised to find the word comes “from a Scandinavian source such as Old Norse skamt, neuter of skammr: “short, brief.” The Online Etymology Dictionary says of the ‘y’ in ‘scanty’ that it was “Originally added to nouns in Old English; used from 13c. with verbs, and by 15c. even with other adjectives (for example crispy).”

    1. And just think how many are ‘out there’ that never are seen. Moving a little more slowly, and stopping a little more frequently might reveal even more!

    1. That wouldn’t surprise me. I’ve come across only three little groups of the yellow variation in about five or so years; they’re not exactly rare, but they’re not common, either. I hope you do come across some one day; they’re so bright, and really can shine in the sun.

  10. It’s always a nice surprise to find flowers that differ from their siblings.
    I don’t know if you chose the topmost photo over others, but I like that it harbors yellow, orange, red, and blue colors.

    1. I do like that first photo. I’ve always been fond of mixed bouquets, whether they appear in a vase or in a field. This has been quite a year for variant-finding: white and pink bluebonnets, and pink and yellow paintbrushes. Even given the beauty of their usual companions, finding the outliers is great fun.

  11. The garden of my front yard is very yellow right now, with a giant flowering maple (abutilon) in yellow, yellow helianthemum, and pale yellow California poppies. (I keep pulling out the orange poppies because otherwise they will take over.) And the park that I hiked in yesterday was blooming mostly in large swaths of yellow daisies I wasn’t able to identify. But no yellow Indian Paintbrush! I find that very special, like wild yellow lupines. Thank you for the lovely photographs.

    1. This certainly is the yellow season here, too: the whole of Galveston Island seems to have turned yellow with coreopsis, sunflowers, and other species I’ve not yet identified. That said, a bit of unexpected yellow can shine as brightly as an entire field of ‘here it is again’ yellow. Only now does it occur to me to wonder: could Emily’s poem have been occasioned by her own discovery of a bit of unusual yellow in her garden?

    1. Every now and then I’m as surprised by one of Emily’s poems as I was by these flowers. Much of her poetry simply is beyond me: I can’t make any sense of it. But when she’s good, she’s the best, and I was more than pleased to find this little poem to pair with these delicious flowers.

  12. Beautiful – and shows that it’s always worth looking closely at nature. I wonder how many folk would have passed these by without noticing that they were different.

    1. I suspect plenty of people (at least relatively speaking) would have stopped to enjoy the bluebonnet field on the other side of the fence. How many would have noticed the yellow paintbrushes in harder to say. There surely would have been some, but not so many. Of course, noticing things like as different requires knowing what ‘normal’ flowers look like. There surely was a time in my life when I would have thought them pretty, and then just passed on my way. I’m probably missing little oddities every day — but not so many now!

    1. I’ve learned now that there are paintbrush species that produce yellow flowers, but they don’t grow in our area. The yellow ones we see are natural variations: as beautiful as they are unusual. I’ve read that white, pink, and yellow flowers aren’t exactly rare in this species, but they’re certainly not common. That’s part of the fun of finding them.

  13. As I recall, Ms. Dickenson was agardener. She would know which hues were the rarer. Since orange is made up of red and yellow, it isn’t surprising that some would have somethig wrong with their red gene(?).

    1. Emily was indeed a gardener. In fact, there are groups and individuals dedicated to maintaining her gardens, and her herbaria sheets are somewhere: Harvard, I think.
      She certainly did study what she grew, so if any of her species produced a ‘sport,’ she would know it. I love finding the natural variants; I’m not so enamoured of what the plant breeders do, although their messing around with colors did give us the Texas A&M maroon bluebonnet!

      That said, these lines were written by her as a poet rather than strictly as a gardener or botanist, so there’s no saying what was in her mind. They certainly fit these little sports! (I love that ‘sports’ is the word used to describe variants. Obviously, these flowers are a bit ‘sporty.’)

  14. Lovely lovely! Today I ate oatmeal that tasted like lemon meringue pie (entirely due to Ellen Abbott – I’m talking about it in this week’s post – ha!)

    1. Now, that’s a phrase I never expected to hear: lemon meringue oatmeal. Given your tastes in food, it’s not surprising that you’d try it, but it is a bit of a surprise that it exists. I hope it was as tasty as these flowers were beautiful; I’m anxious to read about it.

  15. I love the way you not only notice the unusual things in nature, but you take the time to learn all about them and then share that knowledge with the rest of us! Thank you for that.

    1. I’ve said before that most of my posting is akin to five-year-old me running into the house with some new discovery and demanding that my mother look at it. I get so excited when I find something like this, my first impulse is to say, “Lookie!” But of course, if I’m going to share it, I need to be able to tell people what it is: enter research! To be honest, I love that aspect of it all as much as the looking and finding. I guess that’s why I loved school so much — I always thought those research papers were a kick.

  16. Mmmmmmm, lemon meringue pie! I love the views you’ve created here, especially that view from above. It seems an unusual flower and a very attractive one. I always love seeing these flowers with colorful bracts, something I’d only learned about in the past year or so.

    1. I remember how surprised I was when I learned that those bright red ‘petals’ on Christmas poinsettias actually were bracts. Another pair that surround their flowers with bracts are snow on the mountain (Euphorbia marginata) and snow on the prairie (Euphorbia bicolor). I’m sure there are many others I don’t know, but the Indian paintbrush are some of the most dramatic; the variety of colors is amazing.

    1. That image with the butterfly was purely accidental. I didn’t notice it until I looked at the photos on the computer; I only was interested in finding a way to show the combination of floral colors. It’s always fun when nature provides that little something extra!

  17. Encountering something “different” in nature is always a special treat. We become accustomed to seeing what we expect to see. A field of Bluebonnets will be blue. A ditch filled with Indian Paintbrush will have a wonderful mixture of hues. Finding a white Bluebonnet or an all-yellow Paintbrush – well, I might be tempted to write about it.

    If you ever had any doubts your millions of fans only stop by for the pictures and a quick scan of your writing, you may now rest easy. More than a few apparently read all of your words today and focused on the important one buried within the transcript: “pie”.

    1. Isn’t that funny? Sometimes it’s the throwaway line that pulls a reader in — and that’s just fine. On the other hand, yellow is one of the colors that lends itself to being ‘tasted’. With an orange flower, pumpkin pie couldn’t evoke the same sort of response that lemon does.

      I’ve noticed that as time’s gone on, I’ve come across many more ‘oddities.’ I finally decided it’s a result of becoming more familiar with what plants usually look like. If we know the usual, the unusual is a lot easier to find.

  18. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a yellow paintbrush. Even if I did, I’d probably assume it was something else. I don’t have quite your botanist eye.

    1. I wouldn’t say I have a botanist’s eye; I’m far from being a botanist. But I do have a curious eye, and a willingness to slam on the brakes at a hint of bright color. I’m often finding interesting things without having a clue what I’m looking at; that’s when the research comes into play. It’s a lot easier these days, with the access we have to various websites, apps, books — and people!

      This yellow paintbrush is a bit of an oddity here, but out in your part of the country, there’s a gem called the golden paintbrush. I’d love to see those, for sure.

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