Indian Paintbrush or Grandmother’s Hair

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When I first saw the flower as we sped down a major highway I could hardly believe my eyes. But that tell tale flash of crimson had to belong to the Indian Paintbrush I shrieked to my companion, although I had not seen one in twenty years. I was thrilled. We turned the car around to see if we could spot the flower again. Sure enough, there it was growing in a sparse desert –like area along the side of the New Mexican highway. The next day my friend went back and photographed it, much to my delight.

Also called “Grandmother’s Hair” or Prairie Fire Castilleja is a wildflower that belongs to the Figwort (or snapdragon) family. There are a number of species and all are native to North America. Indian Paintbrush can be annual, biennial or perennial depending on the species.

Growing one to two feet high the flowers are borne in dense bracketed spikes. The flowers are insignificant and are hidden beneath the red tipped leaves. It is the leaves or bracts that are colored various shades of crimson, or flaming orange with yellow depending on the species. The bristle -like inflorescences look as if they have been dipped in paint. Indian Paintbrush grows in both moist areas and dry areas, open prairie, and at the edge of forests. The plant prefers sunny areas. These plants grow in Alaska, California, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico. The plants also prefer cooler mountainous climates (up to 10,000 feet) and may be found in the Andes and other parts of South America. They are often found near some kind of water seepage. The flowers begin to bloom in the spring and can last well into summer.

Indian Paintbrush has the ability to grow and survive in serpentine soils. For the geologist, serpentine is a mineral class. These rocks are composed mainly of iron magnesium silicate, with impurities of chromium, nickel and other toxic metallic elements. Because of this unusual chemical makeup, soils may be infertile because of their high magnesium to calcium ratio. Many species of plants are not equipped to handle such stressful amounts of high magnesium, low calcium and in general the overabundance of metals.

Indian Paintbrush also soaks up the alkaline mineral *selenium in the soil in toxic amounts (creating hair loss and brittle nails among other things), so although the plant can be eaten it is necessary to know something about the soil content that the plant is growing in before ingesting it. The nectar of the plant is very sweet and it is the flowers that are most often eaten in salads.

Indian Paintbrush is also known as a root parasite. The plant has small tubes called “haustoria” that insert themselves into the tissues of other plant roots, like sagebrush, to obtain necessary nutrients. However, Indian paintbrush can also make some of its own food, so technically it is a semi – parasite. These plants must also have access to water and they rely on other nearby plants to obtain sufficient water for themselves.

This wild plant is very difficult to grow by seed because it must be planted with a host, another native plant or seedling, in order to survive. Unfortunately, seedlings do not transplant well.

Various Indigenous Peoples used the flowering parts of the plant as paintbrushes. Some Native peoples like the Chippewa use the plant to treat rheumatism and to make their hair glossy. Both applications are useful due to the selenium content.

There is a Blackfoot Indian myth about a maiden who fell in love with a prisoner and escaped with him. When she became lonely for her family she took a piece of bark and drew a picture of her home on it with her blood and left the bark on the ground. A beautiful plant with a bush like end grew out of the soil It was dyed crimson red with the maiden’s blood and named “Indian Paintbrush” by the young girl’s people.

The last time I saw Indian Paintbrush it was in the Sonoran Desert around Tucson early in the spring (March). I had been walking up an arroyo that was still seeping snow from the Rincon Mountains when I saw clusters of these magnificent flowers each with a slightly different coloring, but unlike this New Mexican variety these flowers were a brilliant burnt orange fading into a buttery yellow. I would recognize this plant anywhere!

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Photo Credits: Bruce Nelson

 

*Selenium is an essential trace mineral that is important for many bodily processes, including cognitive function, and a healthy immune system. It is present in human tissue, mostly in skeletal muscle. Dietary sources include eggs, brown rice, some fish and meats. The amount of selenium in food often depends on the selenium concentration of the soil and water where farmers grew or raised the food. Another curious fact about selenium is that it can also produce electricity directly from sunlight and is used in solar cells.

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Wild-crafting the Hedgehog and a brief reflection on Motherhood

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Early last spring while walking in the desert in a rocky area with mineral rich soil I discovered a clump of two very small cacti amongst many other similar clumps. Delighted by the diminutive size of the cacti I dug two along with native soil to pot at home. I noticed two tiny bumps on the sides of each inch tall cactus that were cylindrical in shape and both had short spines that were ridged in burgundy.

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About a month later I was on a rock hunt with my friend Iren, when we discovered another bigger clump of what looked like the same kind of cactus, although the ridges on these were not quite the color of red wine. This clump had more rose red buds. I couldn’t resist bringing this cluster home too along with plenty of chert/flint rich soil. Before I dug up either clump I made certain that others grew in the same area. Whenever anyone digs plants in their native habitat (wild -crafting) it is important to make certain that others of the same kind grow nearby.

After re-potting each in its native soil and placing stones around the periphery of each pot (that I found in the rocky soil around the plants), I placed the two cactus clumps next to each other on a bench right next to my door. The second clump also had buds. Each time I went outside the little cacti greeted me. There was something about finding these cacti growing so naturally and happily in the wild that really appealed to me. I wonder now why I couldn’t leave them there.

I soon learned that Echinocerus viridiflora was a hedgehog cactus that was different from most other hedgehog species. For one thing the cactus is very frost tolerant, and it grows much further north (I found both clumps at about 7000 – 8000 feet in the mountains of Northern New Mexico). The species is native to the central and south central United States and in Northern Mexico where it can be found in varied habitats including mountains, desert scrub, woodlands, and dry grasslands.It also has small flowers along the stem rather than near the tip of the cactus. Plants are globular and can grow 12 inches tall and 1 to 3 inches in diameter but most are much smaller. Stems either remain single or form clumps like some of the ones I had seen. Some clumps could become quite large with a dozen or more individuals. The spines might be variable in color, ranging from red, white, yellow or purple and were short and quite numerous. The flowers could be greenish yellow, pink, orange, brown, or even red. I wondered if elevation or mineral content of the soil helped determine the color of the spines and the flowers.

With so much variation within one species I now suspected that the little cactus I had dug up down the road from my house might also be another Echinocereus v. hedgehog cactus; this one is covered in white spines. The problem for me is that visually they look so different although this one is very small and round too…

Further research on the species as a whole answered one of my questions. One variety of this plant sometimes called Echinocereus davisii is listed as an endangered species and is limited to Brewster County in Texas where it grows in a specific mineral substrate. I couldn’t find any information about the variation in flower color but I suspect that colors also vary with the type of rocky soil and/or the elevation the cacti grow in.

To my great surprise I also discovered that many of these cacti are scented.

I did not know until it was too late that (according to one source) that Echinocereus v. was considered to be “at risk.” Please learn from my mistake. I believed that I was being responsible. I would never knowingly dig up a cactus (or any other plant) that was threatened, unless I knew it was going to be destroyed. All around me as I dug the plants in different locations there were groups of the same cacti. What I failed to take into account is that I found these cacti in diverse, but consistently rocky areas, each having it’s own microclimate and mineral content. I learned the hard way that I should have let them be.

I know one thing for sure. I will treasure these little cacti always, because it would be almost impossible to return them to their original surroundings.

Today is Mother’s Day. My little hedgehog cacti are covered with buds and lemony yellow blooms with a greenish tint. They are stunning and the bees love them!

Nature has gifted me with these exquisite flowers on the one day of the year that celebrates motherhood albeit in a sentimental way. Cactus blooms remind me that the goddess is present in Everywoman as a mother and that she also has thorns! The sharp spines of the cactus that sting like bees also remind me of how difficult motherhood really is, or has been for any woman, not just for me.

Persephone Rises

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While researching Minoan Crete I learned that each autumn young girls once gathered blue violet saffron crocus to leave as an offering for the Wild Crocus Goddess as they prepared for adolescent female initiation rites. I was intrigued by the reference to autumn because I associate flowers more with spring than any other season. From other sources I discovered that in Minoan Crete young girls also gathered bright yellow crocus to celebrate the Great Goddess and the return of the growing season and that yellow was the color associated with the Great Goddess because of the golden color of the dye made from the precious saffron crocus. Later in Greece during the Lesser Mysteries, flowers, especially yellow crocus were also picked to celebrate Persephone’s return from the Underworld. I was particularly delighted by the reference to Persephone picking bright yellow crocus because my relationship with this goddess has been a somber one; I have always associated her with death. And yellow is a joyous color that I associate with early spring.

 

I felt a wild sense of hope as a volcanic fire erupted inside me when I first imagined Persephone picking spring flowers because of my uncomfortable relationship with this mythical figure and also because I love flowers.

 

Suddenly, riveted by childhood visions I was swept up and momentarily tumbled out of time… Crocus and snowdrops appeared out of the snow at my grandmother’s feet like magic, lilacs and violets embraced me through scent, the intoxicating aroma of lily’s of the valley opened the door to mysteriously shaded desert canyons and to rushing rivers rippling over stone, lupine sliced their way through mountain gorges. Giant sunflowers pulsed wildly against a deep blue sky…

 

Flowers have been a guiding force in my life since I was a baby. My grandfather named me Buttercup because my first word was “cups” for flowers, not mama or papa; my second word was “Baba” for grandmother. As a child I was enchanted by the story of my first two names, too young to consider the implications behind choosing a flower as my first word, and my grandmother as the second. My grandmother also told me that I loved the delicate yellow wildflowers that grew in the grass that lay around me when she placed me on the ground that first summer of my life. I was crawling on the sweetly scented earth surrounded on four sides by roses, lobelia, and the deep purple violets that my grandmother grew in her English garden. I held buttery yellow flower petals in my curled fists while my grandmother took moving pictures… it’s almost as if I can remember the joy I felt bubbling inside me, the impish and irrepressible grin of my innocent self, the feeling of being loved by the world – my two grandparents, the grass, the sky and perhaps most of all by the flowers. Almost…

 

I was a volatile and overly sensitive child with an unruly temper who loved Nature passionately. In retrospect, I see that my mother’s emotional neglect/rejection of me and the fear of my father’s explosive temper probably helped me develop a more intimate relationship with Nature that was based on a fierce love that had no other safe place to go. Flowers came to symbolize my joyful feelings and flowers also seemed to be a most natural way to express my yearning to be loved… I remember showering flowers on my mother and grandmother on Mother’s Day and throughout the summer, and when my little brother was old enough he joined me in this practice. At mid –life with my children grown I was free to grow as many flowers as I could care for and wild unkempt gardens appeared everywhere on my property. Now at 70 I am still a “plant woman” although I no longer want to make a career out of outdoor gardening!

 

When researching Persephone’s spring ascent I learned that she was perceived as the power of vegetation to burst forth in the spring and to die back in the fall. Persephone follows other more ancient chthonic agricultural deities who received the souls of the dead into the earth, and acquired power over the fertility of the soil over which she reigned. Some say that yellow crocuses sprung out of the earth at Persephone’s feet when she returned in the spring. Persephone was also described as the Great Goddess of all Nature and associated with water and springs. Others portrayed her as the seed of the fruits of trees and the grain of the fields and the former reminded me of the fruit that Persephone was depicted as carrying during the Mysteries – the pomegranate.

 

The earliest depiction of a goddess who may be identified with Persephone growing out of the ground is on a plate from the Old Palace period (actually these were court buildings) in Phaistos, Crete. Two girls dance between blossoming flowers on each side of a similar but armless and legless figure. Persephone is bordered by snake lines that give her a vegetable like appearance but are also similar to the snake tubes found in Minoan sanctuaries. She has a large stylized flower turned over on her head! That Persephone/Demeter/Eleusinian Mysteries continued a religious practice that began in Minoan Crete in 3500BCE with the worship of the Minoan Great Goddess seems quite probable because the two cultures overlapped. The Eleusinian mysteries were celebrated in Greece for almost 2000 years, not dying out until around 400BCE crushed by the advent of patriarchy.

 

I would also argue that Persephone was a snake goddess like her predecessor the Minoan Snake Goddess. Snakes are believed to embody the life force, rebirth, transformation, and the wisdom of Nature so it makes perfect sense that Persephone would have a serpent aspect to her. Anyone that has ever witnessed the spring phenomenon of hundreds of snakes slithering out of their underground home on a warm spring day might make the connection between snakes rising from the underworld and Persephone’s return just as I have. Persephone was abducted as a young girl but returned to the upper world as a Queen in her own right transformed into a Life-Death-Life goddess because she inhabited both realms – that of the living and the dead.

 

During the Lesser Mysteries the participants were taught about Persephone. These were also purification rites. Some Greek artwork shows initiates choosing to handle a serpent while Demeter looks back at Persephone which suggests to me that initiates had to choose Persephone in her serpent form before they could participate in the Eleusinian Mysteries in the autumn when they would experience her. At the culmination of these Greater Mysteries Persephone freed the participants from a fear of death though no one knows how because all participants had to take a vow of silence.

 

I don’t know if the snow around the house will melt enough this March so that the first spring blooms will appear during the “Month of the Mothers” but I will surely be on the look out. In pre-patriarchal goddess mythology the first mother’s day was March 25th; perhaps this year it will be the day I first peer down at the delicate cups of the spring crocus as they poke their heads and spiked green leaves out of the ground. When that day comes I plan to sing a little song of praise to Persephone welcoming her back…

 

Part 2

 

For those folks in the southern hemisphere who are entering fall as we the northern climates enter spring I offer this next personal narrative.

 

Every Autumn I buy a smooth skinned crimson pomegranate to celebrate the Fall Equinox. But until this fall I have never intentionally bought a pomegranate to acknowledge the Persephone in me although her cyclic journeys to the underworld have also been my own. I have resisted my alignment with Persephone because I have come to fear my own descents. In the last few years these periods of depression have become more severe.

 

This September I turned 70 on the last day of the ancient celebration of Persephone’s Eleusinian Mysteries. Quietly I spoke out loud as I set my birthday intention. I am aligning myself with Persephone. I held a pomegranate in the open palm of my hand, thinking of the fruit as a symbol of my willingness to take this step. I also saw the beautiful round fruit as the Earth, imagining the ruby –like seeds imbedded in the soft white flesh as Earth’s possibilities. As I surrendered and finally accepted my mythic identity/alignment with Persephone, I experienced a subtle energy shift. I thought about the maiden goddess who becomes Queen of the Dead, and the one who makes predictable cyclic descents into the Underworld. As I breathed through my body I experienced a palpable sense of relief… I recalled the recent dream that informed me that the “Way of the Goddess” was my way, and that I had to choose her again. Not surprisingly within a few days I once again entered a state of profound depression during which time I suddenly remembered my first encounter with a pomegranate…

 

I must have been about five or six the night my father brought home the lush red fruit with its silky skin. He sliced the pomegranate in half.

 

I was transfixed by the sight of this fruit that was also full of seeds and entered some kind of non – ordinary state as I took half the pomegranate from my father’s hand and ate the first bitter-sweet ruby seed.

This memory of the two of us is so sharp and clear and ends so abruptly that I realize now that it was a mythic story that the child tapped into. I entered Persephone’s “field” for the first time as a young girl… This fall when I accepted my mythical alignment with Persephone I crossed her threshold as an adult, and with a lightening flash of insight understood the meaning behind my compelling childhood memory. When I took the pomegranate out of my father’s hand I accepted the fate that was mine to own albeit unconsciously. On an archetypal level the young child entered into a mythical contract with her father, a Hades figure. She took the fruit and ate the seeds insuring that she too would become an underworld figure. My identity as a Persephone was sealed by that encounter though it would take a life – time to live it and to unravel the threads.

 

To perceive Persephone as an archetype is to understand that a pattern of energy/information is attached to the figure. Archetypes work as attractor sites pulling a person into a particular alignment with an archetypal pattern or field. The nature of these fields is unknown but they work on the same principle as other known fields like the field of gravity. Archetypes are impersonal, they are patterns of energy that carry specific information and each one has a specific region of influence. Archetypal patterns often live through us without our knowledge but if we are sensitive to their energy charge we may have the feeling that we are living a more authentic life once we are pulled into a particular field because like attracts like. In this way of thinking as a child I already had personality traits and had been born into a specific field of influence that left me vulnerable to being drawn into a death field as a Persephone. I remember vividly how I reacted when I first read the myth; I was enthralled by all the characters and inexorably drawn into the story almost against my will. The character I was most reluctant to align myself with was Persephone. And that was more than twenty years ago. Last fall when I accepted Persephone in me it opened a mythic door to my most authentic self. What I didn’t realize then was that by accepting Persephone in me as the woman who made cyclic descents, I also gained access to the story of her joyous ascent in the spring.

 

Blessed Be

 

A Brief Overview of the Myth of Demeter and Persephone:

 

The story begins with Persephone gathering flowers (saffron crocus or poppies) in a field one autumn with Demeter watching over her beloved daughter. Suddenly the earth splits in two and out of the chasm comes Hades who scoops up Persephone and in a flash descends back into the Underworld. Demeter searches frantically for her daughter and eventually meets Hecate, goddess of the crossroads who takes her to Helios. Helios the sun explains that Persephone has been chosen as the bride of Hades, who is King of the Underworld. Demeter is in such a fury that she causes the Earth to become barren. Eventually Persephone is released from the Underworld to appease Demeter’s wrath. In some early versions Hecate rescues Persephone. Demeter is overjoyed to be re-united with her daughter and the Earth once again becomes fertile. When Demeter learns that Persephone has eaten the seeds of the pomegranate she realizes that Persephone will have to return to the Underworld for a few months of every year because she accepted the seeds from Hades, who tricked her. During the months of the year when Persephone is once again Queen of the Underworld, the land becomes barren. Both Demeter and her daughter accept Persephone’s fate and in the fall of the year every five years the Eleusinian Mysteries are celebrated with Persephone leading the procession. The mysteries are secret so nothing is known of what transpired at Eleusis for almost 2000 years except that those that participated were freed from the fear of death.

 

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