Care Of Indian Paintbrush Flowers: Indian Paintbrush Wildflower Info

Care Of Indian Paintbrush Flowers: Indian Paintbrush Wildflower Info

By: Mary H. Dyer, Credentialed Garden Writer

Indian paintbrush flowers are named for the clusters of spiky blooms that resemble paintbrushes dipped in bright red or orange-yellow paint. Growing this wildflower can add interest to the native garden.

About the Indian Paintbrush

Also known as Castilleja, Indian paintbrush wildflowers grow in forest clearings and grasslands across the Western and Southwestern United States. Indian paintbrush is a biennial plant that usually develops rosettes the first year and stalks of blooms in spring or early summer of the second year. The plant is short-lived and dies after it sets seed. However, if conditions are right, Indian paintbrush reseeds itself every autumn.

This unpredictable wildflower grows when it is planted in close proximity with other plants, primarily grasses or native plants such as penstemon or blue-eyed grass. This is because Indian paintbrush sends roots out to the other plants, then penetrates the roots and “borrows” nutrients it needs in order to survive.

Indian paintbrush tolerates cold winters but it doesn’t perform well in the warmer climates of USDA zones 8 and above.

Growing Castilleja Indian Paintbrush

Growing Indian paintbrush is tricky but it isn’t impossible. The plant doesn’t do well in a manicured formal garden and has the best chance of success in a prairie or wildflower meadow with other native plants. Indian paintbrush needs full sunlight and well-drained soil.

Plant seeds when the soil is between 55 and 65 degrees F. (12-18 C.). The plant is slow to germinate and may not make an appearance for as long as three or four months.

Colonies of Indian paintbrush will eventually develop if you help the plant by planting seeds every autumn. Clip the blooms as soon as they wilt if you don’t want the plant to reseed itself.

Care of Indian Paintbrush

Keep the soil consistently moist for the first year, but don’t let the soil become soggy or waterlogged. Thereafter, Indian paintbrush is relatively drought-tolerant and needs only occasional watering. Established plants require no further attention.

Do not fertilize Indian paintbrush.

Saving Seeds

If you want to save Indian paintbrush seeds for later planting, harvest the pods as soon they begin to appear dry and brown. Spread the pods to dry or place them in a brown paper bag and shake them often. When the pods are dry, remove the seeds and store them in a cool, dry place.

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Germinating Seeds of the Indian Paintbrush

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Indian paintbrush (Castilleja spp.) is a wildflower native to the American Southwest. It is semi-parasitic, which means it is able to produce its own food but needs to grow with a host plant to thrive. It does not damage the host plant, but uses its root system to help absorb nutrients from the soil. Indian paintbrush grows in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 3 through 9. Cold stratification of seeds helps them germinate, as it simulates the natural cold temperatures they would experience before germination in the wild.

Purchase seed or collect seed pods when they are mature. Seed pods are directly beneath the flowers and will mature in April or May. The pod will be dry and brown when ready to be collected. Immature seeds will not germinate, so you must allow them to mature on the plant.

Split the seed pods and remove the seeds. Soak the seeds in a bowl of water for four to eight hours. Strain the seeds to remove debris.

Moisten a paper towel. Place the seeds and the towel in an open plastic bag. Refrigerate the bag at 36 degrees Fahrenheit. Leave the seeds in the refrigerator for 30 to 150 days depending on the paintbrush species. Cold-weather species need a longer germination time than warmer weather species.

Check the seeds weekly for signs of mold. Throw out any moldy seeds. Re-moisten the paper towel if it dries.

Fill a seed tray with a mixture of equal parts peat and perlite. Place the seeds on top of the growing medium and lightly cover them with the mixture. Water the seeds with about 1 inch of water per week to keep them moist. Place the seed tray in an area with 69 to 77 degree Fahrenheit daytime temperatures and 50 to 60 degree nighttime temperatures.

Move the paintbrush to host plant seedling containers once the plants have four to six leaves. Gently prick out the seedlings with your fingers. Set one seedling next to each host plant, placing them about half an inch apart. Make a small hole in the dirt with the tip of your finger, set the roots of the seedling in the hole and cover them with soil. Phlox, blue bonnets and fescue grasses are examples of good host plants. The plants can be moved outdoors when they are about 16 weeks old.

Jill Kokemuller has been writing since 2010, with work published in the "Daily Gate City." She spent six years working in a private boarding school, where her focus was English, algebra and geometry. Kokemuller is an authorized substitute teacher and holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Iowa.

Life Stages

As with most higher plants, the life cycle of Indian paintbrush progresses from seed germination to growth of the seedling, then flowering, pollination, and seed formation. Indian paintbrush differs from this basic pattern because it possesses root-like organs called haustoria that form connections with a host plant's roots. The necessity for a host varies between paintbrushes. One species, the showy Indian paintbrush (C. coccinea), is an obligate parasite and must attach haustoria to a host while it is a seedling, or it doesn't survive. Some Indian paintbrush grow without a host but don't thrive and don't bloom. Others seem to function without hosts. In England, four species of Indian paintbrush were successfully grown from seed without host plants in a garden setting.

Indian Paintbrush Care Must-Knows

Wild Indian paintbrush thrives in sandy soil, sagebrush plains, grassland, and semidesert locations up to 9,500 feet. That's why it's best suited for naturalized areas and prairie pockets alongside other native plants rather than manicured gardens. A symbiotic plant, Indian paintbrush grows best when planted where its root system can tap into the root system of a host plant to obtain nutrients. The host plant is rarely harmed by the relationship and Indian paintbrush thrives. Good host plants include little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), beardtongue (Penstemon), and blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium).

Seeding is the best way to plant Indian paintbrush because container-grown plants are difficult to transplant. Seed Indian paintbrush in early spring or late summer in full sun and well-drained soil that's between 55 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Be patient the seeds may take a few months to germinate.

Keep the soil moist—but not soggy—during the first year. (After that any surviving plants will be drought-tolerant and only need occasional watering.) Do not fertilize. Expect young plants to unfurl a low-growing rosette of foliage during that first growing season. Colorful bracts appear in spring or early summer of the second growing season followed by seeds in the fall. The plant will die shortly after setting the seed that will become a new generation of Indian paintbrush.

Although plants will reseed in optimal growing conditions, you'll increase your chances of developing a colony of Indian paintbrush plants by planting additional seeds every autumn. If that's your plan, harvest the seedpods as soon as they start to look dry and brown. Spread them out to finish drying. Remove the seeds, then store them in a brown paper bag in a cool, dry space. Shake the bag often until it's time to plant.

Indian paintbrush a hardy plant yet hard to grow

Indian paintbrush

Indian paintbrush, Wight Indian paintbrush, Painted-Cup Demi Bowles Lathrop

Species/genus: Castilleja wightii, Castilleja affinis ssp. affinis

Family: Scrophulariaceae

Common name: Indian paintbrush, Wight Indian paintbrush, Painted-Cup

Description: Indian paintbrush belongs to a group of perennial herbs native to North and South America. More than 30 species come from the United States and Mexico, and one species originates in northern Asia. These plants are seldom grown in gardens because they are partly parasitic and often need the roots of a host plant.

This native herb bears showy bracts or flowers in a terminal head or spike. Colors range from bright red to rose to yellow. Small flowers bear tube-shaped corolla, or petals, with two lips, the lower smaller than the upper. Leaves, sometimes woolly, alternate on stems.

While C. wightii and C. affinis ssp. affinis are sometimes used synonymously, they are distinct species.


-- Native Here Nursery, East Bay Chapter of the California Native Plant Society: Tilden Park, 101 Golf Course Drive, Berkeley. (510) 549-0211.

Cultivation: Paintbrush can be grown in California gardens with the right host. Margriet Wetherwax, managing editor of the Jepson Flora Project in Berkeley, names these hosts for annual and perennial paintbrush forms: "The annuals can be grown in pots with annual grasses, such as Aira, but the perennials are more host specific. The best to try for Castilleja wightii would be its associates in the beach and dune community, such as Eriophyllum stachaedifolium (Lizard tail), Eriogonum parvifolium (Seacliff buckwheat), Erigeron glaucus (Seaside daisy)." Soil conditions have to match, which means growing paintbrushes can be difficult.

So where can you grow this plant in your garden? Because it thrives on rocky bluffs or in dunes, an open garden spot with light and air is ideal. Or, grow it in a pot. Give it good drainage, with rocky soil and sand.

Pests/diseases: Since it seldom grows in gardens, no known diseases or pests are listed.

Comments: The name castilleja honors 18th century Spanish botanist Domingo Castillejo. Castilleja wightii, named to honor 19th century Scottish surgeon and botanist Robert Wight, is a California native plant found only in our state. It can be found growing on bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean at Point Lobos State Reserve, just south of Carmel. Scruffy colonies of bright orange-red paintbrushes jut up from the gray rock. It survives in the extreme conditions generated by its closeness to the ocean, strong sun, dense fog, salt spray and the shallow soils of the rock face. It belongs to the coastal scrub community of plants. It is found at elevations from sea level and up to and 984 feet. Wetherwax points out that Indian paintbrushes grow up and down the coast. "Some of the best can be seen at Pescadero Marsh along Highway 1." Summer is the best time for viewing them.

Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea)

By Christopher David Benda

Indian paintbrush is an attractive member of the parasitic Broomrape family (Orobancaceae). This species was formerly placed in the Figwort family (Scrophullariaceae), which was a hodgepodge of genera that didn’t fit well in other families.

This plant is also called painted cup for the showy cup-like bracts. The genus name “Castilleja” is named after Spanish botanist Domingo Castillejo, and “coccinea” means “red,” referring to the red bracts that surround the flowers.

The showy red structures are technically bracts, a type of modified leaf, and not petals. The actual flower petals are rather inconspicuous, although the tip of the sepals are tinged with red as well. Also, there is a form of this species that has yellow bracts (Castilleja coccinea f. lutescens), as well as a separate closely related species that also has yellow bracts (Castilleja sessiliflora).

These plants are hemiparasites, meaning that although these plants are green and can photosynthesize, they also have the ability to sequester nutrients from other organisms, in this case, from perennial grasses. Despite being obligate parasites for part of their lives, these plants do rely on pollinators for reproduction. A variety of insects visit paintbrush flowers, especially bees. This is somewhat surprising since the color red is difficult for insects to see. However, like most red flowers, this species is especially adapted for pollination by hummingbirds. Hummingbirds have long bills that allow them to reach the nectar rewards at the end of long, tubular flowers. Also, the lack of a lower petal lip denies insects a perch to rest on, favoring hovering organisms like bees and hummingbirds.

This is a biennial species. Although seeds can germinate the same season as when they are released, usually they germinate the following spring and produce a basal rosette that will flower the following season. Seeds are contained in a chambered capsule with two divisions, and once ripe, the capsules split open and wind action helps scatter the up to three hundred seeds within each capsule. Ironically, this plant was used by Native Americans as both a love charm in food and as a poison used to against their enemies, as this species is known to have toxic properties. This species likes sand and grows in both prairies and open woods. It is present in most of the eastern states, including those bordering the Mississippi River, as well as Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas.

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