BiodiverseCity St. Louis
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BiodiverseCity St. Louis is a growing network of organizations and individuals throughout the greater St. Louis region who share a stake in improving quality of life for all through actions that welcome nature into our urban, suburban and rural communities. Learn more about this effort, and join in.


Species Spotlight

Scarlet paintbrush Scarlet Paintbrush
(Castilleja coccinea)

—Contributed by Allison Joyce (EarthWays Center of the Missouri Botanical Garden)

Now that spring has sprung and temperatures are starting to feel suspiciously summer-like, you may begin to notice splashes of red dotting natural landscapes. Those are often Castilleja coccinea, also known as scarlet paintbrush or Indian paintbrush. The genus is named for the 18th century Spanish botanist, Diego Castillejo and coccinea is Latin for scarlet. The showy scarlet “flowers” are not actually flowers, in the botanical sense, but rather leafy bracts that surround the inconspicuous green flowers.

Although Native Americans do have traditional uses of C. castilleja, that is not where the common name originates: that simply comes from the plant’s resemblance to a brush dipped in red paint. Traditionally, the plant is used as, ironically, both a love charm and a poison.

C. coccinea was once a part of the Scrophulariaceae family – a sort of hodgepodge family where genuses that did not clearly belong elsewhere were assigned. However, botanists have recently discovered that there is a lot more going on below the soil than originally thought. Although the plant is green and does get nutrients through photosynthesis, molecular research has shown that scarlet paintbrush actually is parasitic! As its roots grow deeper into the soil, they penetrate roots of other plants and get a portion of their nutrients by taking them. This trait caused botanists to reclassify all members of the Castilleja genus into the Orobanchaceae or Broomrape family, the home of parasitic plants.

In addition to molecular research, field research has shown a forty-fold increase in the survival rates of C. coccinea if they are allowed to parasitize from one of their preferred hosts. In our area, these are little bluestem, penstemon and prairie blue-eyed grass. If you are trying to establish your own colony of scarlet paintbrush, including the host plants will increase your odds of success with an otherwise difficult-to-establish plant.

Although they are capable of self-fertilization, C. coccinea relies on pollinators for sexual reproduction. They are primarily pollinated by ruby-throated hummingbirds who are attracted to the bright red color and then transfer pollen long distances between typically small and scattered populations. Scarlet paintbrush exhibits a characteristic called “color polymorphism” meaning that plants can range in color from scarlet to yellow. A 2019 study showed that scarlet populations had higher success rates in areas that were frequently visited by pollinators whereas in contrast, yellow populations had higher success rates in areas that were scarce in pollinators and had to rely on asexual reproduction. This is another demonstration of the value of genetic diversity to help a species survive a variety of environmental challenges.

The next time those red splashes catch your eye, consider that there is a lot going on in those seemingly innocent and artistic April–July bloomers! Learn more about how to grow this unusual plant yourself from the Missouri Botanical Garden’s page on scarlet paintbrush.

St. Louis City Nature Challenge Results

For the fifth year in a row, the greater St. Louis Region participated in the City Nature Challenge—a global competition taking place in hundreds of cities and metropolitan regions around the world to see which city can document the most species in 4 days! This event started on April 29th and ended on May 2nd. After the observation period was over, many scientists, naturalists, and ecologists spent the next week helping to identify those observations. The results are in and St. Louis did a GREAT job! Thank you to our sponsor of the 2022 St. Louis City Nature Challenge, Caleres!

Keep an eye out for upcoming opportunities to get involved with iNaturalist through our Step Out with iNaturalist campaign. In partnership with BiodiverseCity St. Louis and with generous support from Caleres, the Missouri Botanical Garden encourages all ages to get outside and explore nature in the seasons ahead. We’ll provide a map of nearby nature areas where biodiversity is strong. Bring your curiosity and a smartphone, upload photos of the plants and animals you find to the mobile app iNaturalist, and meet new nature neighbors! Share the fun on social media on select dates this summer and fall. Full details coming here soon.

Want to See More Green Along the Highways?

MODOT and East-West Gateway are working to envision the future of our regional interstate highways. In addition to their traditional focus on increased safety, critical bridge maintenance, and ramp realignments, they are interested to hear the Community's needs and goals for these corridors. If you would like to see more green infrastructure, trees, and biodiverse landscapes within the highway rights-of-way please let MODOT and East-West Gateway know in these surveys.

Great Read

moss Ancient Green: Moss, Climate, and Deep Time
by Robin Wall Kimmerer

—Contributed by Jean Ponzi (Green Resources Manager, EarthWays Center of the Missouri Botanical Garden)

This essay by Robin Wall Kimmerer—mother, scientist, professor, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation—takes a long, clear moss-eye’s view of Life on Earth, in the loving story mode that made her 2013 book Braiding Sweetgrass an instant ecological classic.

Kimmerer’s exquisitely fused Indigenous Science perspective presents Bryophyta as both her keen botanist’s focus—Bryology is her academic specialty—and as ancient beings she has learned from, deeply. She states, rock-solid, the power of moss as transformer:

“In the Anishinaabe languages…our words for moss, aasaakamig and aasaakamek, carry the meaning ‘those ones who cover the earth.’ Soft, moist, protective, they turn time into life, covering the transient and softening the transition to another state.

“They do not discriminate in their coverage, be it a post-glacial boulder or a car long abandoned in the woods—all are blanketed. I once found a pair of logger’s boots on a cut stump, robed in moss, with sporophytes rising through the eyelets. In their vibrant verdancy, they seem to say, Where there is light and water, life will win.”

Kimmerer shares her joy in learning from these subtle, steadfast kin. As she kindly and firmly directs our much younger species to join the lesson, her practice of respect precludes calling our kind a flailing, heedless gang of Captain Destructo two-year olds, and her mother understanding of toddler nature firmly informs her premise that moss can teach us: strategies to persist amid the climate, habitat, diversity, and relational changes we are (this is my term: insanely) driving.

We see how mosses, over eons, thrive with minimal demands on their surroundings, “following the rhythms of the natural world, growing in periods of abundance and waiting through periods of scarcity: a wise strategy for life that is in tune with uncertainty.”

Climate content is increasingly tough to take, with mighty good reasons. Robin Wall Kimmerer always writes, speaks, and teaches from exquisitely fused knowledge, appreciation, and hope for healing change:

“I can almost hear the billionaires sneering in response to these lessons of moss. ‘Don’t tell me to live like a moss. I have become a giant among men.’ We’d do well to remember that the dinosaurs were big too. Living small is not a sign of weakness or complacency. Rather, it is the surpassing strength of self-restraint, to live simply so that others might simply live.”

Bonus! You can read and hear the luminous words of Robin Wall Kimmerer, published April 2022 in Emergence Magazine. Please bookmark this online source of in-depth stories with the “potential to shift ways of thinking and being in our relationship to the living world.”


A Community Initiative to Promote, Protect and Plan for Biodiversity Throughout the Greater St. Louis Region

Supported by Ameren Missouri

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