Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
Readers wishing to view this spring beauty will have to trudge to the tops of the gravelly prairie hills. This plant inhabits dry grassland sites from Saskatchewan and Manitoba south to Oklahoma, at elevations up to 7,500 ft.
Downy paintbrush is unusual in that the conspicuous colors are mostly not due to the flowers, which are small and greenish, but to the bracts below them. These bracts are creamy-yellow and about one to two inches long; as many as two dozen occur on a single stem. The six- to twelve-inch stems are unbranched, but occur in small bunches from divided rootstocks. Leaves are numerous, narrow, divided, and about as long as the flowers. The whole plant is grayish-hairy. Fruits are small capsules filled with tiny, reticulated seeds.
Downy paintbrush is not greatly relished by livestock so it survives under fairly heavily grazed conditions. However, best stands are found on lightly grazed hilltops.
This plant belongs to the large family known as the figworts (Scrophulariaceae), so called because by the old medical "doctrine of signatures," whereby the appearance of plant parts determined their curative value. The fleshy knobs on the roots of some figworts were supposed to cure scrophula and remove figwarts.
The generic name was dedicated to the distinguished Spanish botanist Domingo Castillejo in 1781. The specific name sessiliflora means "stalkless flowers" in botanical Latin. Downy paintbrush was first described for science by the German botanist Frederick Pursh in 1814. Pursh was the first to publish upon plants collected on lands acquired by the Louisiana Purchase.