Earth Notes - Kaibab Paintbrush

Flagstaff, AZ – Earth Note: Kaibab Paintbrush

North of the Grand Canyon, the Kaibab Plateau is a world unto itself. It rises from desert on all sides to 9,000 feet, where you can find both deep conifer forest and open meadows. This island in the sky hosts a number of unusual species.

The rare Kaibab form of the Abert Squirrel is perhaps the best known. But several unique plants grow there too. Among them is the namesake Kaibab paintbrush, also known by the common name Indian paintbrush.

Southwesterners know paintbrush as a bright scarlet or red explosion of blooms. But the Kaibab version has its own colors: pale cream to yellow to salmon. It blooms in summer with the monsoon rains, and hummingbirds help pollinate it. Like its relatives, the Kaibab paintbrush is a semi-parasite, living on nutrients provided by the roots of meadow grasses.

The Kaibab paintbrush's world distribution consists of about 10 square miles in De Motte Park. Ecologist John Spence, in a project with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Arboretum at Flagstaff, has been monitoring the plant since 2006. He estimates there are about 10,000 plants in all.

That may sound like a lot. But with such a small range and restricted habitat, the Kaibab paintbrush has become one of the species the region's botanists worry about in the face of continued drought and global warming. As a result, Spence and others plan to keep a close eye on the plants to see how they fare in an uncertain future.

-Rose Houk