Indian Paintbrush: Wyoming State Flower

By Dave Hanks

It was the flower to paint the sunset, as the Indian legend goes. A young brave had no way to reproduce the sunset colors, so the Great Spirit gave him paintbrush. He painted a masterpiece and left the brushes scattered across the landscape. You will find them in mountain meadows, open woodlands, and along stream-banks and roadsides.

There are more varieties of paintbrush besides the red ones which we call Indian paintbrush. Their range of colors is red, orange, yellow, and even white. Paintbrush blooms from April to September. Indian Paintbrush is recognized by the bright red color on its dense bracts that surround the hidden flower. There is no place to perch on the plant, and so it must be pollinated by birds or insects that can hover. Paintbrush is semi-parasitic on grass roots and often grows in conjunction with shrubs (especially sagebrush). Its roots intertwine with the shrubs roots, getting nourishment in this manner.

Paintbrush flowers are sweet and edible. Native Americans used it as a condiment in small amounts. Its food value is similar to that of garlic. How ever, the plant’s selenium content can be toxic, if not used in moderation. The Ojibwe used it in a hair-wash, which made their hair glossy. Nevada tribes used the plant to treat sexually transmitted diseases.

Paintbrush is also called Prairie fire and the genus contains about 200 species. It became Wyoming’s state flower in 1917. This attractive wildflower was one of the first I learned as a boy scout – the lovely brushes, sprouting on hillsides, are unforgettable.

(Colorful contrasts)