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What is an Indian Paintbrush?

By Angie Bates
Updated May 16, 2024
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An Indian paintbrush is a type of flowering plant found most often in the wild. Growing primarily in North America, the term Indian paintbrush signifies over 200 species in the genus Castilleja. Vibrantly colored, these plants are partially or wholly parasitic to other plants.

Also called prairie fire or a painted cup, the Indian paintbrush has spikes of flowers clustered on top of a long stalk. The flowers themselves are small and tube-like, without much color, but the bracts, leaves located directly under each flower and shaped like scales, are tipped with bright colors, usually reds, oranges, or yellows. From a distance, the bracts appear to be the petals themselves.

The roots of the Indian paintbrush have specialized parts called haustoria, which allow the plant to attach its roots to another plant's roots nearby. Once attached, the paintbrush will absorbed some of the nutrients the other plant obtains. Parasitic plants, or hemiparasites, like the Indian paintbrush, are generally undesirable to have in home gardens and are difficult to grow and maintain when included. Trying to move grown plants usually results in death because of their parasitic nature, so when planted intentionally, they must be started from seeds.

The paintbrush is annual or biennial, depending on the species, and normally found in fields and meadows. The first year of growth the plant has very little height, scarcely extending above the grass surrounding it. During the second growing year, however, the stems may reach up to 18 inches (45.7 cm). Adult Indian paintbrushes may be as tall as 36 inches (91.44 cm), with 2- or 3-inch (5–7.6 cm) flower clusters.

Though the paintbrush is not ideal for gardens, it may be planted intentionally as a wildflower. Starting around 2003, Arkansas began planting the most common paintbrush species, Castilleja coccinea, along roadways on its interstate system to help beautify the landscape. This vibrantly red flower not only adds a visual appeal to otherwise drab roadways, it also helps prevent soil erosion.

Another common paintbrush species, and one of the most popular, is Castilleja indivisa. Like coccinea, indivisa has vibrantly red flowers. This species is more commonly known as the scarlet paintbrush. The scarlet can be distinguished from coccinea by its broader leaves and flowers.

Wyoming adopted one species of Indian paintbrush, Castilleja linariaefolia as its state flower. Though there was opposition from botanists at first, who believed its parasitic nature as well as its non-abundance in Wyoming should disqualify it, popular appeal won out. The paintbrush officially became Wyoming's state flower in 1917.

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