Indian Paintbrush — June 2009

paintbrush plant

   Indian paintbrushes are among the most familiar southwestern wildflowers and they actually do look very much like the plant was plucked out of the ground, inverted, and carefully dipped in a bucket of paint.  Of the 20 native species of Indian paintbrushes in New Mexico, the Southwestern Indian paintbrush, Castilleja integra, is the most common in Deer Canyon.  The genus name honors the 18th century Spanish botanist Domingo Castillejo, and the species epitaph means whole or unbroken, describing the lack of lobes or teeth on the leaves and most of the bracts.  Other common names for Castilleja integra include foothills paintbrush, wholeleaf Indian paintbrush, and squawfeather. 

   Southwestern Indian paintbrush is a perennial with one to several erect stems growing to about 16 inches in height.  The stems have whitish woolly hairs and bear thin leaves up to two inches long in an alternate arrangement.  Each leaf is sessile (attached directly to the stem, therefore lacking a petiole) with a smooth upper surface and a fuzzy underside.  The main root is woody and the feeder roots are capable of tapping into the roots of nearby plants as they grow through the soil.  Because such roots are able to acquire water and nutrients from their neighbors, Indian paintbrushes are classified as hemiparasites.  They are certainly capable of making their own food photosynthetically, but they also rely on neighboring “host” plants (usually grasses, such as the blue grama in the photo below) to complete their nutritional requirements.  Because of their hemiparasitic lifestyle, Indian paintbrushes are notoriously difficult to transplant, and reputable nurseries will only sell them growing in association with an appropriate “nurse plant.”


   In addition to their somewhat deceptive nutritional strategy, the flowers of Indian paintbrushes are also not exactly what they appear to be.  What most would call the showy colored petals are actually bracts (modified leaves found at the base of flowers) and technically not part of the actual flower.  These bracts appear at the end of the stems and are red-orange in Castilleja integra: they may be red, orange, or even yellow in other species.  The true petals of Indian paintbrushes form tubular green structures that partially emerge from the uppermost bracts, or in some cases the colored sepals.  The pollen is produced by four stamens located inside each of the green floral tubes and is usually transferred by hummingbirds.  The fruit is a dry capsule containing many small seeds.  Indian paintbrushes are also known to be hosts for checkerspot butterflies.  

paintbrush flower

   Indian paintbrushes have traditionally been classified in the snapdragon family (Scrophulariaceae), but recent DNA analyses have necessitated moving the genus Castilleja to the related broomrape family (Orobanchaceae) which includes a number of completely parasitic plants. Southwestern Indian paintbrush has several traditional uses including as an ingredient in paints and dyes, such as those used to dye deerskins.  The dried bracts are mixed with chile seeds to prevent spoilage.  And a poultice made from the leaves has been used to treat burns.  Despite a number of curious and interesting aspects of this plant, I find its primary value in its ability to paint dry gray-brown grassy expanses with delightful splotches of vibrant color.

Printable pdf of this essay here.

© 2009 Jerry Melaragno

© 2007-2022 Alan & Kathleen Clute