I noted that on a recent walk along the Lower Pit River (Shasta County CA) I saw several red flowers. It was a colorful day! In addition to the scarlet fritillary and the scarlet delphinium, the wine red Indian warrior (Pedicularis densiflora) was in bloom. This plant resembles the various Indian paintbrushes, but belongs to a different genus. The pinnate leaves are the most obvious field characteristic separating the Indian warrior from the Indian paintbrush species.
Also commonly called warrior’s plume, Indian warrior is a perennial, native to Oregon and California, occurring only in those two states. Apparently the bright red, club-shaped raceme (unbranched flower cluster) of Indian warrior resembles the headdress of an Indian brave – hence the common names.
Inhabiting dense, dry oak and pine forests and often found in the shade of shrubs, Indian warrior is a facultative root parasite. It attaches to the roots of other plants to obtain nutrients and water, but can also survive and photosynthesize by itself. Indian warrior can live alone but will parasitize if the opportunity arises.
Indian warrior grows from a half to two feet in height. The pinnate leaves are mostly basal and get smaller further up the round stem. The flowers have five petals united into a two-lipped corolla. The spout-like flowers have a stout straight upper beak (lip) and a lower lip with three small lobes. The leafy bracts are long. The ovary is superior with the style and stigma (parts of the female reproductive organ) extending beyond the upper beak. This plant is adapted for hummingbird pollination.
Indian warrior has a reputation as a muscle relaxant, aphrodisiac, sedative, sleep inducer and immune system booster. It is also added to herbal smoking mixtures for “flavor” and its alleged sedative qualities. I have no idea about all the medicinal claims made for Indian warrior, but there appears to be a large market for this “legal herb”. Care must be taken if Indian warrior is picked for use as a botanical because if its host plant is poisonous, Indian warrior can pick up the toxins.
For me, Indian warrior is a beautiful early spring wildflower that adds color to a landscape just beginning to turn green.