Of all the lovely wildflowers to enjoy in Utah, indian paintbrush has to top my list. The nickname “prairie fire” is an accurate one, highlighting the variety of colors we find: reds, oranges, yellows, pinks, purples, and sometimes a mixture of two. In Tomie dePaola’s children’s picture book “The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush,” Little Gopher discovers “brushes filled with paint, each one a color of the sunset.” The legend is a flashy tale celebrating this member of the figwort family and stories captured in rock art. Of course, our petroglyphs are fascinating, but I like to imagine how the pictographs adorning many of Utah’s “learning rock” sandstone walls may have been painted with brushes, fingers, and other tools many centuries ago.
Often, when we see indian paintbrush, whether we’re in Utah’s deserts up in elevation through subalpine meadows, we also see sagebrush. They are both native to Utah. In fact, some species of indian paintbrush are root-parasites for sagebrush, intertwining roots to access water and nutrients because they lack small hairs on their own.
The Utah State University fight song captures the love we have for the spots in Utah where sagebrush grows. To celebrate Aggie homecoming, my first grade class went out this week to explore describing adjectives of sagebrush compared to those for rabbitbrush, another brush native in Utah. One student wrote that rabbitbrush smells like strawberries and is bushy yellow. Another thought that it looks like a banana, smells sweet, and likes bees and rocks. Alternately, a student wrote that sagebrush is minty, soft, and “smells horrible.” We learned to recognize the sagebrush leaf three-toothed tridents and the magical way rubbing the leaves on paper both releases and traps that distinctive fragrance.
Mae Timbimboo Parry, once a recordkeeper of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone, sketched how to identify sagebrush in much the same way. In his appendix of “The Bear River Massacre: A Shoshone History,” Darren Parry shares his grandmother’s handwritten field notes about sagebrush, indicating its use in tea and purifying ceremonies. I was surprised at first that she did not include indian paintbrush in the list of plants until I realized that willow, wildrose, sego lily, and sunflower all had practical uses beyond their beauty. Some have said that the sagebrush is the backbone of the West, and I would add that indian paintbrush adds a splash of color.
Along with horsebrush, buckbrush, blackbrush, bitterbrush which is also known as antelopebrush, and rabbitbrush, indian paintbrush and sagebrush tell a Utah story as distinctive as that portrayed in the brushstrokes of the pictographs of this land.
I’m Shannon Rhodes, and I’m wild about Utah.
Images: Courtesy & Copyright © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Audio: Courtesy & © Kevin Colver https://wildstore.wildsanctuary.com/
Text: Shannon Rhodes, Edith Bowen Laboratory School, Utah State University https://edithbowen.usu.edu/
Additional Reading Links: Shannon Rhodes
Alpine Nature Center. Is It Rabbitbrush or Is It Sagebrush? https://www.alpinenaturecenter.org/rabbit-vs-sage.html
de Paola, Tomie. The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush. Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers. 1988. https://www.tomie.com/https://www.audubon.org/news/celebrating-sagebrush-wests-most-important-native-plant
Johnson, Jeff. Head of Sinbad Pictographs in San Rafael Swell. https://thetrekplanner.com/head-of-sinbad-pictographs-san-rafael-swell-utah/
Larese-Casanova, Mark. Desert Plants Field Book. Utah Master Naturalist. https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1911&context=wats_facpub
Mozdy, Michael. Bold Figures, Blurred History: The Great Gallery in Horseshoe Canyon. October 2, 2016. https://nhmu.utah.edu/blog/2016/09/29/bold-figures-blurred-history-great-gallery-horseshoe-canyon
Miller, Pam, and Blaine Miller. Rock Art in Utah. https://www.uen.org/utah_history_encyclopedia/r/ROCK_ART.shtml
Parry, Darren. The Bear River Massacre: A Shoshone History. https://heritageandarts.utah.gov/the-bear-river-massacre-a-shoshone-history-a-conversation-with-darren-parry/
Repandshek, Kurt. Traces of a Lost People. The Smithsonian Magazine. March 2005. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/traces-of-a-lost-people-84026156/
Scotter, Troy, and Nina Bowen. The Rock Art of Utah. Utah Rock Art Research Association. May 13, 2020. https://urara.wildapricot.org/page-18203
Strand, Holly. Woody Plants of Utah. Wild About Utah, December 15, 2011. https://wildaboututah.org/tag/rabbitbrush/
Strand, Holly. Sagebrush. Wild About Utah, January 14, 2009. https://wildaboututah.org/sagebrush/
Susec, David. The Barrier Canyon Rock Art Style. The B.C.S. Project. http://www.bcsproject.org/barrierstyle.html
U.S. National Park Service. Seeing Rock Markings in a Whole New Way. https://www.nps.gov/articles/cany-rock-markings-photo.htm
Wampler, Fred. Paintbrush and Sagebrush. University of Mary Washington Gallery. http://www.umwgalleries.org/paintbrush-and-sagebrush/
Young, Lauren. Saving the American West’s Sagebrush Sea. May 19, 2001. https://www.sciencefriday.com/articles/saving-sagebrush/