Anyone who has spent time in the Western United States has probably seen the wild flower known as Indian paintbrush, also called Castilleja. This wildflower is named for its clusters of colorful bracts that resemble paintbrushes dipped in brightly colored paint.
This small flower grows in forest clearings and grasslands across the western and southwestern United States. It has thin greenish gray lower leaves and upper leaves which look like the flowers but are actually bracts that come in varying colors of red, orange, and sometimes yellow. The flowers stick out from the top of the cluster of bracts and are green to white in color. The Indian paintbrush is a biannual plant that grows leaves the first year and stalks of blooms in the spring and early summer, and if conditions are right, the flower will reseed itself in the fall.
When seeing Indian paintbrush in the wild one thing you may not have noticed is that it never grows alone. This is because this wildflower is a hemiparasitic plant, which means the plant gets some or all of its nutrients from another living plant,primarily grasses and other native plants like penstemon and sagebrush. This is done when the Indian paintbrush sends out roots to the other plant, drills into its root system and draws out the nutrients it needs. Indian paintbrush is not completely parasitic as it does not kill the host plant and it has green leaves which enables the plant to photosynthesize.
Even with the somewhat sinister way this plant lives, it is one of the many hidden beauties which ads a splash of color to the dry desert landscape.
This wild flower even brought about a Native American legend. The legend tells of a young brave who tried to paint the sunset with juices from flowers and berries after having a dream vision. After many attempts he became frustrated that he could not match the brilliance of nature, but after another vision, he went to a hilltop where the Great Spirit gave him paintbrushes filled with paint that matched the colors of the sunset. After he painted his masterpiece he left the the brushes he was given on the hilltop. The next morning the tribe discovered that the brushes had sprouted and left the landscape ablaze with color. Now every spring the Indian paint brush blooms again to remind us of the beauty of nature.
Indian paintbrush is not recommended for the home landscape because they can be tricky to grow as they rely on other plants for their water source. However, growing this flower in your yard is not impossible if you are willing to put in a little extra effort.
Indian paintbrush grows best in prairie or wildflower meadows with other native plants and will do best in a dryer native plant section of your garden. They will need full sun but can tolerate a little shade, and will need well-drained soil. Plant you seed when the soil is between 55 and 65°F. Indian paintbrush is a slow growing flower so it may take a few months for it to grow, but it will eventually establish itself by reseeding every fall.
Keep the soil consistently moist, but not soggy, for the first year. Indian paintbrush is fairly drought-tolerant and after the first year will only need occasional watering and once established will not need any more attention.
You will not need to fertilize your plants, but make sure to plant them with a companion plant like grasses and other natives to ensure it gets the support it needs to thrive.