Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Murder weapon?

This isn't Indian paintbrush, but orange hawkweed. See the July 13 post for a photograph of Indian paintbrush.

A mystery writer is always looking for novel ways to dispatch a victim. That was not on my mind yesterday when the Lady Friend and I tramped about the woods near the Writer's Lair looking for woodpeckers to photograph. We came upon a copse full of Indian paintbrush, a familiar but always startling orange wildflower, the size of a quarter, whose centers burn fiery yellow in the sun.

I took the portrait of a clump, and when we returned to the cabin, looked it up. Dozens of species of Indian paintbrush -- called that because Native American tribes used it for that purpose -- are found all over the United States, and the flowers of this particular variety (Castilleja coccinea) are sweet and edible.

The flower is also full of selenium, and that is why the Ojibwa of Upper Michigan fluffed their hair full and glossy with a hair conditioner brewed from it. They also used it as a treatment for rheumatism.

The authorities, however, warn against eating a lot of paintbrush because heavy concentrations of selenium can be toxic. had this to say:

"Epidemiological studies of humans chronically (long-term) exposed to high levels of selenium in food and water have reported discoloration of the skin, pathological deformation and loss of nails, loss of hair, excessive tooth decay and discoloration, lack of mental alertness, and listlessness."

Does a killer ever stop to appreciate the flowers? Maybe in my next book one will. Could he use Indian paintbrush as a murder weapon? It would kill slowly, but surely, just as Victorian wives' arsenic dispatched hapless husbands.

But it would take a lot of patience and a long time -- too long -- perhaps, for a mystery novel.

Still the idea is fetching.


  1. When I trod those very same woods as a kid I had my first encounter with the Indian Pipe (monotropa uniflora) aka Corpse Plant. Seems like a fitting name now.

  2. The name can refer to different plants.

    Growing up in New England, our family saw lots of orange hawkweed, but we always knew it as it Indian Paintbrush.