Part 1. Indian Paintbrush
I splash my face with creek water, a shock of cold. I am awake for sure. This little branch of East Creek starts somewhere up the canyon and pays no attention to me as it happily trickles and murmurs past rocks and grassy banks. It spreads out here where vehicle tracks have crossed the creek, then gathers itself and burbles onward. The canyon is still in shadow on my side of the creek, but on the other side early morning light outlines dry grasses along the dirt track that climbs the hill. I hop rock to rock across the creek and climb the dusty track into sunlight. I’ll have to check it out, but I’m almost sure the pale yellow/tan grasses are the color of raw sienna, one of my basic palette watercolors. I top a low rise, and before me splashes of red dot the hill where clumps of Indian paintbrush mingle with dry grass and sagebrush. Beautiful. One specimen is especially handsome and begs to be drawn. I’ll have to come back later for a longer look.
What would we do without wildflowers? These clumps of paintbrush were not intentionally seeded or planted, yet they come up year after year. The free spirits of the plant world, wildflowers spread along roadsides, color hillsides, beautify ditch banks, light up meadows, and surprise us in marshy areas. Many plants provide forage for animals and protective cover for small ones. The colorful flowers attract insects and other pollinators, including hummingbirds. Plenty of individual flowers are tucked into small places, but when they carpet an entire area they help hold precious soil in place, preventing erosion. Never meant to be picked, wildflowers make poor cut flowers and rarely last long in camp table bouquets, a waste of natural beauty.
My love for wildflowers may have started with Indian paintbrush, which is fairly common in the foothills of Northern California and up into the Warner Mountains where we are camped. For me, a beckoning wildflower is a hope and a promise. It’s a challenge to match colors while painting and a joy to capture on paper the unique configurations that distinguish species. Their movements in the breeze speak volumes, showing off characteristic gestures and even poetic qualities. Plenty of writers have been inspired by wildflowers. It’s clear that poets understand things that cannot be found in a field guide.
Indian Paintbrush is widespread with many species in the West from Montana and Oregon south to the Mexican border. With flowerheads that look a lot like brushes, they may color whole hillsides red when in full bloom. An interesting plant, it is semiparasitic, meaning it does not make all of its own food. The roots spread into the soil until they touch the roots of other plants, then penetrate the tissues to steal part of the host’s food. Sagebrush is a common host, since it prefers similar habitat. This area has plenty of sagebrush; no wonder I see so many red blooms. Read more next Saturday as I sketch an Indian Paintbrush.