Indian Paintbrush—Facts, Legend & Lore
The First Indian Paintbrush
Once upon a time, a Blackfoot maiden fell in love with a wounded prisoner she was attending. The maiden realized that her tribe was only nursing its captive in order to torture him later. She planned an escape of the prisoner, accompanying him for fear of the punishment for such a deed.
After some time in her lover's camp she grew homesick for a glimpse of her old camp. She finally went to the site of her old camp, hid in the nearby bushes, and overheard two young braves discussing what would happen to the maiden who betrayed them, if only they could find her.
Knowing she could never return, but nonetheless longing to return, she took a piece of bark and drew a picture of the camp upon it with her own blood, gashing her leg and painting with a stick.
After drawing the picture, the maiden threw the stick away and returned to her lover's camp. Where the stick landed, a little plant grew with a bush-like end, dyed with the blood of this girl, which became the first Indian Paintbrush.
Adapted from "Old Man's Garden" by Annora Brown
The Indian Paintbrush is a native perennial, annual or biennial herb (depending on the species) of North America.
Latin Name: Castilleja Miniata
Other Names: Grandmother's Hair, Common Red Paintbrush, Butterfly Weed, Prairie Fire, Painted Cup, Painted Lady
Family: Scrophulariaceae or Figwort Family
Identification: With 6 different species in the area, they can be very hard to tell apart. Growing 15 to 60 cm high, the flowers are borne in dense bracted spikes. These flowers are really insignificant compared to the bracts, which are brightly colored red, yellow, pinkish and sometimes white depending on the species. (once they are in bloom, I will try to find as many varieties as I can to show you the difference, until then, visit Wikipedia and scroll towards the bottom to see them) There is a beautiful pink/violet variety in Glacier National Park and I would love to see them as well.
Good to Eat? Yes - With Restrictions - In some areas, Colorado for instance, the Indian paintbrush soaks up selenium and the level can be very high and cases of toxicity related to this plant have been recorded. I live in Alberta, where there is very little selenium in the soil, so I can enjoy this tender and tasty plant. Pulling out the long white corolla tube and eating the sweet nectar at the bottom is a special treat.
Parasitic Properties: The Indian paintbrush is a semi-parasite, making only a portion of the food it requires. Its roots grow into the soil until they touch roots of other plants, such as sagebrush. They then penetrate the tissues of this host plant to steal part of their food. Throughout the ages the paintbrushes have so developed this habit that they can now scarcely live without the aid of other plants.
The Chippewa Indians called the Indian Paintbrush "Grandmother's Hair" and used it for women's diseases and rheumatism (maybe because of the selenium content).
The Navajos used these plants for medicinal purposes such as a contraceptive or to decrease the menstrual cycle.
The Menominee used it as a love charm.
The paintbrush was macerated in grease by the Indians and used as hair oil to invigorate the hair and make it glossy, this effect was probably due to the selenium content.
Indian paintbrushes were also used to make a red dye.
A Different Indian Paintbrush Legend
In the Garden
As stated above, the Indian paintbrush is a plant from the Figwort family or the snapdragon family and is also known as a hemi-parasite or root parasite. The plant has little tubes called "haustoria" and they stick these little tubes into other plants to get their nutrients, and this is how they survive.
It can be started by seed, but must be planted with a 'host' (preferabley native plant) in order to survive. All reading I have done says that they are extremely difficult to propagate by seed and they don't transplant well.
Indian paintbrushes are one of my favorite flowers and every time I see one in the wild it makes me smile, so I am just as happy to enjoy them where nature intended them.
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