Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Fields are on Fire

On May 18, Tony and I were at the Clark and Pine East Nature Preserve, more commonly known as "Bonji." The Bonji site is now an Indiana Dedicated State Nature Preserve, though it consists of formerly mined sand dunes. A rare and unique flora persists at this heavily impacted site, and aditional restoration efforts are underway to control invasive species.

As we drove along, we noticed that the low ridges appeared to be ablaze... a sure sign that the Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea) was in bloom.

Moving closer, we could almost feel the warmth of this flaming gem. We just had to take a quick break from work to take some photos. It is a scene like this that gives me a sense of what the great Hoosier botanist Charlie Deam must have felt when he was taken to the prairies at 17th and Whitcomb Streets in Gary for the first time by the great Chicago Region botanist Floyd Swink in the late 1940s. "When he was shown the Indian Paintbrush stretching for blocks into the distance, he said: 'I have collected in every township in the state of Indiana; I am now in my eighties; this is the finest Indiana natural area I have ever seen in my life.'" (Swink and Wilhelm 1994. Plants of the Chicago Region.)

Moving closer, you can see the georgeous flowers...

Ahh... yes... those georgeous, green flowers.

As you probably know, the "paintbrush," which can range from white (in forma alba) to yellow (in forma lutescens) to scarlet red (in forma coccinea) is actually a series of brightly colored, lobed bracts. The flower is the yellowish-green structure above each bract. If you look closely, you'll see two broad, rounded calyx lobes (sometimes with colored tips), a protruding bilabiate corolla with a galeate upper lip, and an exserted style/stigma.

While most of the bracts on the plants that we saw were orange in color, a few scattered plants had scarlet-colored bracts.
The genus Castilleja was named in honor of Spanish botanist Domingo Castillejo; the specific epithet coccinea obviously comes from the bright red bracts. Castilleja coccinea is somewhat parasitic on the roots of other plants, and can be found throughout much of eastern North America. Native Americans made a tea from the flowers that was used as both a love charm and a poison (don't get any ideas, Commander).


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