Indian Paintbrush

Indian Paintbrush graces an aspen grove in Island Park, Idaho.

The story is told of a young Native American, Little Gopher, who, in a vision quest while striving to become a man was promised the ability to paint the vibrant colors of the sunset. Despite years of honing his skills, he could never find the colors he needed for the evening sky. One night he heard a voice advising him that on the morrow he would find the colors he would need to paint the sunset. When he went to his favorite painting place, he found paintbrushes sticking handle first into the ground, their tips dripping with paints the colors of a glorious sky. He painted the sunset and, in the morning, the people awoke to find a landscape full of reds, yellows and oranges as the paintbrushes had all turned to flowers. Little Gopher was thenceforth called He-Who-Brought-the-Sunset-to-the-Earth.

Indian paintbrush, the flowers of this story, bloom across much of the continental US, especially in the western states. In the drier, warmer areas of low country, the paintbrush show is a spring occasion. In the higher country, such as Island Park, Indian paintbrush is at its peak during the last week of July and the first week of August.

Indian paintbrush, also known as painted cup or prairie fire, is of the genus Castilleja, named after Spanish botanist, Domingo Castillejo. There are about 200 species in the genus. With that many species, you can expect a fairly high degree of variability and Indian paintbrush doesn’t disappoint. Indian paintbrush species range from small annuals to biennials to perennial subshrubs and thrive in habitats from deserts to alpine tundra. I have personally seen Indian paintbrush bedecked in red, orange, magenta, purple, yellow, pink and white. Depending on species, leaf shape can be variable as can the shape of the colored part.

Notice that I was careful not to say inflorescence or flower. That is because the beautiful colors that we associate with Indian paintbrush are not petals or sepals. The Indian paintbrush flowers are tubular, green and inconspicuous unless you look closely. The colors that we admire are actually bracts—modified leaves that are often associated with a reproductive structure such as a flower. The bracts in this case are usually shorter, wider and more lobed than leaves.

Trying to determine the actual species of a paintbrush plant can make seasoned botanists scream for mercy. They are highly variable within and between populations. Minute details must be considered, details best left to botanical specialists. Even then, Castilleja species hybridize easily keeping experts in high demand.

All paintbrush species are high on the list for pollinators. They don’t have stiff stems for perching so they attract hovering pollinators such as bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, all of which utilize paintbrush plants extensively.

Indian paintbrush plants are hemiparasites. They can and do photosynthesize, but they also send roots to lovingly intertwine around those of adjacent plants where they share nutrients. This doesn’t really impact the unsuspecting neighbors but it is critical to the survival of the paintbrush. This is the main reason it is difficult to cultivate paintbrush—they need a companion plant to survive.

I see a lesson in this seemingly bad habit of hemiparasitism. In order to provide us with soul filling beauty and keep pollinators buzzing, the paintbrush depends on the strength and support of neighbors. Perhaps we could all improve if we learned to trust and depend upon each other a little more.

Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho