Some Rocky Mountain Wildflowers and Their Names

Flower names are a popular topic, so I picked a bouquet of wildflowers on my recent trip to the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. (That’s “picked” as in “selected.” I believe in the motto, “Take only pictures; leave only footprints.”)

Blue columbine, the state flower of Colorado, takes its name from the French colombine, in medieval Latin columbīna, ‘dove’s plant.’ The inverted flower is said to resemble five pigeons clustered together. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “The horned nectaries suggested to an earlier age allusions to cuckoldry.” The dictionary cites Ophelia’s “mad scene” in Hamlet, in which she strews fennel, columbines and rue.

Fireweed is a name given to various plants that come up after a fire. (Epilopbium angustifolium, pictured here, is one of 100 species of fireweed.)

The flower of Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja) looks like the bristles of a paintbrush freshly dipped into paint.  It paints the countryside in a wide number of hues, mostly red, orange and purple, but also yellow and even yellow-green.

Here’s a wild strawberry blossom. It’s uncertain what strawberries have to do with straw. The words for strawberry in other Germanic languages have no reference to straw. One (far-fetched, I think) explanation is that the little seed-like “achenes” on the surface of the fruit resemble particles of straw. A more plausible hypothesis is that the runners look like straw.

Photo credits: columbine, paintbrush & wild strawberry, Judith B. Herman;        fireweed, John Wessel

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2 Responses to Some Rocky Mountain Wildflowers and Their Names

  1. Now that’s a coincidence: a little while ago I was looking at a picture of fireweed at

    though I had to ask the writer of the blog to identify it because it’s not something that grows in Texas. Speaking of which, we do have several species of paintbrush here, the most common being Castilleja indivisa, called Indian paintbrush.

    The origin of strawberry is puzzling. I once read that the first component is related to strew, because of the way the fruits seem strewn about, but that now seems to be folk etymology.

    Steve Schwartzman

    • lexiekahn says:

      Thanks, Steve. Another coincidence is that we’re both interested in words and wildflowers. Beautiful portraits of them on your site. I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure the paintbrush in my photo is Rosy Paintbrush (Castilleja rhexifolia). The petals are broad and don’t resemble bristles as much as those of other species.

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