Notorious Orobanche

When I finished shooting small-flower phacelia, I just sat and enjoyed the view for awhile, but then the sky darkened and rain looked imminent, so I got all the gear into my daypack and started hoofing it fast back to the car. And then I stopped short, because I saw this.

I suppose a truly dedicated photographer and botanerd would take the time to set up the tripod and get decent close-up shots, but I hate getting wet, and more importantly I didn’t want the camera to get wet, so I took a few handheld shots and then really started hoofing it fast.

This is Orobanche uniflora, known by the common names one-flower cancer root, one-flower broomrape, and ghost-pipe; it’s placed in its own family, the Orobanchaceae. It can be found throughout the continental US and most of Canada, in moist woodlands and open areas, often growing right among species of Sedum or plants in the aster and saxifrage families*. In Maryland it can be found from the Appalachian plateau to the western edge of the coastal plain.

Notice that the stems are yellow, and there’s no green? That’s because this species has no chlorophyll: it’s parasitic, requiring a suitable host in order to germinate and grow. The leaves surrounding the flowers in these pictures are from other plants. Some of them look to me like one of the asters, though I can’t be sure unless I go back in a few months and see the plants blooming.

The various Orobanche species are on the federal noxious weed list, and are classified as noxious, prohibited, quarantine, or pest by eight states; Florida excepts O. uniflora, though. It’s hard to imagine this little thing causing significant crop damage, but apparently it can.

*USDA Forest Service

What’s That Scrophy-Looking Thing?

Bartsia alpina
Icelandic: smjörgras


In the second picture of my previous post, you can see some dark purple plant material surrounding the cuckoo flowers. Those are the upper leaves and flowers of this very common plant, but the flowers are hard to make out at first, since the leaves become increasingly purple as they ascend the stem. You might be able to see that if you click on these two pictures to get larger images.


Velvetbells grows in a wide variety of habitats and so is found almost everywhere in Iceland. The plant stands from 6-12″ tall, blooms in June and July, and is incredibly easy to identify, because nothing else looks like it. Indeed, Bartsia is a monotypic genus, so there’s nothing similar in the Maryland Piedmont to compare it to. It’s also found in much of eastern Canada as well as Greenland, but nowhere in the US.


Bartsia was formerly classified in the figwort family, Scrophulariaceae (hence the pun in the post title), a large family made much smaller by the work of taxonomists. You have to look in the broomrape family, Orobanchaceae, to find anything similar to velvetbells in the Maryland Piedmont. You can see the family resemblance in the flowers of beechdrops (Epifagus virginiana) and squawroot (Conopholis americana) if you look closely. I think they all look like the gaping maws of miniature monsters.

Because I am fascinated by words and etymology and the whole concept of names, I tried to investigate the Icelandic common name, but didn’t come up with much. “Smjör” means “butter”, and “gras” means “grass”. But are those the roots of the common name or is that coincidental? Google translate offers “amethyst” as a translation of “smjörgras”, but reversing the search tells me that the Icelandic word for “amethyst” is “ametyst”. Amethyst is a nice description (the upper leaves and flowers are a lovely deep purple)  but I have no idea if the plant tastes like butter.


I’m All Ears


desert paintbrush (see below)
Castilleja species
[Scrophulariaceae in some older references]


When hunting wildflowers, obviously you have to keep your eyes open, and sometimes it helps to keep your nose open. But sometimes it pays to keep your ears open, too.

On my second day in Death Valley, I was waiting in line for the only loo in the lower Dante’s View parking area (loos are hard to come by in Death Valley) when I overheard the woman behind me say to her friend “did you see the Indian paintbrush?”

“No, where?” says the other woman.

“Right over there, behind my car,” says the first.

Well.  I wasn’t going to lose my place in line, but as soon as I finished that task I joined the small crowd gathered around this plant, the only specimen I saw on the trip.


Just like with the past few plants I’ve posted about, I had a bit of trouble nailing down which species this is. I finally decided on Castilleja applegatei ssp. martinii (one of four subspecies) because that’s the one in the pamphlet I purchased at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center; the description reads “May grow through shrubs for support; in mid to high elevations.” As you can see this was growing through a shrub, and that parking lot is a little under 5000′ above sea level.

However… I can never leave good enough alone.  Calflora doesn’t show that species growing anywhere near Dante’s View. A little more research, and I came up with another ID: C. chromosa. Which is a name no longer accepted by ITIS, which calls it C. angustifolia var. dubia.  Which is plausible. I don’t have the details to say which species it is.

About the common names… seldom have I seen so many variations.  These two species may be known variously as:

  • desert (Indian) paintbrush
  • wavyleaf (Indian) paintbrush
  • pine paintbrush
  • Martin’s paintbrush
  • showy northwestern (Indian) paintbrush

I dunno. Maybe I should just call it “paintbrush” and be done.