One of the advantages to living in the Austin-Round Rock area is the convenience of living in the city, but the ability to quickly get out into very rural areas. This is a win-win for me, as I have rapidly gotten accustomed to being within a hop, skip and jump of restaurants, cafes, retail stores and places to grab a drink and listen to live music. But, there are parks nearby and to get away from traffic and noise only takes a short drive. Earlier in the spring, when the weather was perfect for the windows down, wind in your hair drives we all love, I headed out towards Lockhart and Luling to see what there was to see.
Besides Crested Caracaras and a Ferruginous Hawk hanging out in the pastures outside of Lockhart, there was a beautiful quilt of orange blanketing many of the open fields. Don't get me wrong, I'm still very excited about watching the Ferruginous Hawk chilling out low on the branch of a fallen snag in the middle of an old pasture; but, there was no denying nature's artistry of wildflowers in bloom. One flower, in particular, seemed to extensively cover much of the meadows and prairie-like pastures.
Texas Paintbrush (Castilleja indivisa) is a common native wildflower across much of Texas and Oklahoma, with its native range extending into Louisiana and Arkansas. Known also by the common name Scarlet Paintbrush, when it is in bloom, it is nearly as common as the Texas Bluebonnets. In the case of the Texas Paintbrush (which is what I choose to call it, as I am not a fan of using terms other ethnicities find offensive), common is anything but drab, ordinary or easy to overlook. True to their name, they look very much like a ragged brush that has been dipped in brightly colored paint. For this Carolina boy, to come around a curve to see the road and the landscape open up and become a palette of blues and oranges for the first time was pretty breathtaking. That's really saying something, too. As a graduate of The University of South Carolina, orange is far from my favorite color; so, please take a moment to comprehend just how grand this must have been to touch me. Fortunately, that bright orange blanket often turns much more of a reddish-orange color upon closer inspection of individual plants.
Texas Paintbrush is not just a lovely flower, it has a really cool life history. It can be either an annual, but is usually a biennial. This means that, though it normally takes two full years to complete the cycle of seed to full flower and fruit, it may occasionally go from seed to flower and seed in the same year. The roots are what give it a true slant on what you might expect from this scarlet beauty. Paintbrush roots grow until they encounter the roots of another plant. they will then tap into and penetrate the roots of a neighboring plant and take a portion of the nutrients it needs to survive. This partial parasitism means they are hemiparasitic or semiparasitic, as Paintbrushes do not require a host for all their needs. As it does photosynthesize and produce much of what it needs on its own, the Paintbrush only takes a portion of the nutrients it requires from a host plant.
Though a variety of plants are used, Texas Paintbrushes seem to prefer grasses as hemiparasitic hosts. This is a pretty good strategy, as Paintbrushes require full sun and open areas to grow, such as meadows, pastures and prairies full of a number of grass species. Furthermore, this requirement of deriving some nutrients from neighboring plants makes transplanting Texas Paintbrushes quite difficult. They do; however, grow fairly readily from seeds when in the right environment.
One more interesting fact is the showy bright orange and red parts are bracts that subtend the much less conspicuous greenish flower. These bracts do; however, serve to bring a large number of pollinators in to investigate the Paintbrush.
Though the Texas Paintbrushes have run through their beauty and are done for this spring, I can only hope to see them painting the pastures and the prairies next spring as I head back out into the wide open areas here.