One of the plants that seems to be common in the Courtenay River estuary is the common red paintbrush (Castilleja miniata). What interested me about the plants that were growing along the edges of the slough and wetter areas was the variety of colour represented. Colours ranged from deep red through to a pale yellow.
There are many species of paintbrush in British Columbia and the common red paintbrush is one of the most … common. Unalaska paintbrush (Castilleja unalaschcensis) has also been reported at the Courtenay estuary and it was the one that I was hoping to find. It’s definitely not as common and you’re more likely to see it further north in British Columbia. When Jocie and I lived in Haida Gwaii we found it growing out near the edge of the beach in Sandspit.
The challenge is that common red paintbrush and Unalaska paintbrush tend to hybridize so it can be difficult to separate the two if they’re growing in the same area. Such is the case at the Courtenay Estuary.
The Illustrated Flora of BC describes the leaf shape of both species as exactly the same so using that as a characteristic to separate them is not useful. To make matters more complex, there seemed to be a wide range of variety in leaf shape as well. Some had the classic common red paintbrush shape while others were fatter and more rounded. I found a couple of plants that had lobed leaves down to the bottom of the stem as well—I think that these were just a result of natural variation.
The key difference appears to be in the inflorescence. Colour can be used to separate the two species, but not reliably since they hybridize. Generally, the common red paintbrush tends toward scarlet red to orange (rarely yellow) bracts (the structure that looks like the flower are actually the bracts that cover the flowers) while the Unalaska paintbrush tends toward yellowish bracts (although they can be tinged with orange).
In addition to the difference in colour, the bracts differ in shape as well. The common red paintbrush bract is described as lanceolate to oblong-egg-shaped with 1 to 2 lobes near the top, rarely entire. In contrast, the Unalaska paintbrush has bracts that are lanceolate to egg or wedged shaped, entire and rounded, with 1 to 2 very short blunt lobes.
In retrospect I probably should have taken a couple of sample plants back home to look more closely at the flowers. Of these five photographs I’m pretty sure that most of them are common red paintbrush (despite the colour). The only one that I’m not sure about is the last, most yellow paintbrush. The bracts of this one definitely aren’t as lobed as the others and it does seem to have a different look. Can’t be 100% sure, but it might just be Unalaska.
The one thing that I do know for sure is that the common red paintbrush isn’t always red!