The two flowers in this picture, red Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja miniata) and white Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis), also called Canadian Dogwood, are not usually found growing together in the same spot. But in the Columbia Gorge, there are a number of places where the diversity of flowers is so large that unusual partners appear alongside the trail. These were found along a mountainside on the Washington side of the gorge, where relatively sunny conditions favor the paintbrush, but abundant moisture allows the bunchberry to grow.
Another interesting thing about these two flowers is that the most visible white and red parts of each flower are not petals. They are bracts, special-purpose leaves that protect the true flowers while in bud form, then when open attract attention to the flowers. The petals for both flowers are much smaller. The full detail view shows the flowers of the bunchberry, in a small cluster in the center of the flower.
The resemblance to dogwood flowers is more than passing; the bunchberry is closely related to its much larger cousin. Rather than growing into a tree, these miniature dogwoods carpet patches of rich soil beneath trees and are no more than a few inches high. In rare instances six-bracted flowers bloom on the plant. A few have variegated leaves with unusual patterns of white and green stripes. In the fall, a cluster of red berries replaces the flower, again providing a treat for the eye.
The opening of a bunchberry flower is the fastest motion of a plant ever recorded. The flowers pop open in a mere two-thousandth of a second and propel the pollen-bearing stamens forward at an acceleration of 800 times the force of gravity. It's an unusual and fascinating method of pollination. See Nature 435, 164 (12 May 2005).
The paintbrush is partially parasitic and lives in close proximity to other plants that help to nourish its roots. As a result, they are difficult to cultivate, and best left to find their own part of the wilderness where they belong. It's a fiercely individualistic plant. Left to its own way, it thrives and rewards us with its beauty. When we take it away from its home, it withers and dies. Many of those who would meddle with nature in an attempt to improve or exploit it could learn an important lesson from the story of the paintbrush.