In Bloom: Paintbrush canvas |

In Bloom: Paintbrush canvas

Karin Teague
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN ” One of my favorite problems is trying to decide which superlative wildflower hike to write about. Just about anywhere high (above 10,000 feet) and wet (think late snowmelt areas with crisscrossing rivulets) is ablaze in color right now.

Perhaps the most bang for your buck can be had at Linkins Lake, just below Independence Pass, east of Aspen. Your car having done most of the work, the trail to Linkins Lake (which splits off early from the upper Lost Man Trail) takes less than half an hour, and rewards the hiker with one of the great flower shows of the year.

One of the stars of the show is the arresting paintbrush (Castilleja spp.), ranging in color from white to pink to red with every shade in between and some in combinations of colors, some silky-soft, some brilliant. This diversity is a happy result of the fact that our four higher-elevation paintbrushes, Castilleja occidentalis (yellow), C. miniata (red), C. rhexifolia (pink) and C. sulphurea (white) all hybridize with each other, leading to unique color combinations.

Interestingly, it’s not the paintbrushes’ flowers that are attracting pollinators with their showy colors. Rather, it’s their bracts, leaf-like appendages that usually sit inconspicuously beneath the flower, but which in this case are large and colorful. Hiding within those bracts are the green, bud-like, ho-hum flowers ” look down on the plant from above to see their pointy heads.

Why paintbrushes evolved in this unique way is not clear, but what is clear is that they co-evolved with hummingbirds, whose long beaks are able to penetrate to the nectar at the bottom of their flowers, resulting in paintbrush’s predominately red and pink coloring, which is preferred by hummingbirds. As for the white and yellow paintbrushes, pollination is performed primarily by white-loving, long-tongued moths and butterflies.

One of the special pleasures in seeing these exquisite flowers at their peak is knowing that you will probably not see them in gardens or anywhere else at any other time. This is because paintbrush is a hemi-parasite, meaning while it can photosynthesize and produce some of its own food, it relies on the roots of other plants for the balance of its nutritional and water needs. In the high mountains, it co-exists with plants like grasses and lupines, without which the paintbrush would not thrive.

Persuading a paintbrush to form this root association in a garden is apparently a tricky business. At least one scientist, however, believes the key isn’t the extra food and water, but rather the element nitrogen, which paintbrushes derive entirely from other plants. So the choice is yours ” try growing paintbrush with a high nitrogen fertilizer, or trade dirty fingernails for muddy hiking boots and get out and see the paintbrush in all its natural, unsurpassable splendor.

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