Indian paintbrush flowers are a wildflower that commonly grows in the more arid regions of the United States, including deserts, shrublands, high deserts, meadows, and plains. These flowers are beautiful to behold and have a rich history in legend and folklore. In this guide, I’ll run through everything you need to know about Indian Paintbrush meaning, symbolism, popular types, uses, and essential growing tips.
- Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja) – The Essentials:
- About Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja)
- The Meaning and Symbolism of Indian Paintbrush Flowers
- Uses and Benefits of Indian Paintbrush
- How to Grow Indian Paintbrush
- Caring for Indian Paintbrush
- Best Companion Plants for Indian Paintbrush
- Creative Uses for Indian Paintbrush
- Indian Paintbrush FAQs:
- Enjoying a Sunset of Colors With Indian Paintbrushes
Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja) – The Essentials:
|Scientific Name:||Castilleja spp. (several species)|
|Native Range:||North and Central America|
|Colors:||Red, orange, yellow, pink, and white|
|Characteristics:||Showy bracts that resemble paintbrushes|
|Mature Height:||6 inches to 3 feet|
|Flowering Season:||Spring to summer|
|Growing Zones:||4 to 8|
|Watering:||Drought-tolerant, usually weekly in spring and summer|
|Soil:||Well-draining, low-fertility soil|
|Fertilizing:||Generally not needed|
|Pruning:||Deadheading can promote continued flowering|
|Symbolism:||Represents happiness, strength, and vitality|
About Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja)
A member of the Orobanchaceae (broomrape) plant family within the Castillejinae subtribe, Castilleja is a genus containing 215 accepted species of herbaceous annual and perennial plants that are commonly referred to as Indian paintbrush, paintbrush, painted cup, or prairie fire.
Indian paintbrush plants grow in clumps that can be about eight to 15 inches tall at maturity and about a foot around. They produce foliage that is typically short and ovate, with leaves unfolding all along the plant’s branches or stems.
While the flowers vary across species, most are adorned with small, cup-shaped flowers produced in abundance on racemes along the ends of their tall stems. The brightly colored flower petals with the racemes’ slightly ragged profiles create the look of paintbrushes dipped in vibrant paint. The flowers can be red, yellow, orange, pink, purple, or white.
The flowers emit almost no fragrance, but their striking colors attract pollinators, including bees, butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds, to their abundant pools of nectar.
Plants of the Castilleja genus are native to North America and South America, in addition to Russia, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan.
The Meaning and Symbolism of Indian Paintbrush Flowers
Indian paintbrush flowers get their name from the paintbrush-like appearance of their flowers and the history of their use by various Native American tribes. The genus name pays homage to the Spanish botanist, surgeon, and professor Domingo Castillejo.
The Castilleja linariifolia (commonly called Wyoming Indian paintbrush, Wyoming desert paintbrush, Wyoming paintbrush, desert paintbrush, and narrow-leaved Indian paintbrush) is the state flower of Wyoming.
The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush
In The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush, author and illustrator Tomie dePaola retells a Texas fable that explains how the Indian paintbrush got its name while also teaching a lesson about the importance of recognizing your individual talents and using them to realize your purpose in life.
In the story, Little Gopher worries because his diminutive stature prevents him from keeping up with the other boys in his tribe. He cannot run, ride, or shoot with them. However, a wise man tells him that he should not worry because he will eventually discover his talents.
A few years later, while contemplating becoming a man, Little Gopher has a dream vision in which an old man and a young woman instruct him to record the history of his tribe so that they will be remembered forever. They introduce him to tools and materials and tell him to gather them in preparation because one day, they tell him he will paint a picture with colors that are as pure as those seen in the evening sky.
He found the tools and started painting pictures of hunts and other events, but he never found the right colors to paint a sunset like the one that was described to him in his vision. One night, however, a voice told him that the next day the right tools would be provided, and he would finally be able to paint the evening sky.
The next day, at his usual painting spot, he found paintbrushes already filled with color sticking up out of the ground. He used those brushes to paint the sunset. The next morning everyone awoke to see the whole area ablaze with color because the brushes he used had grown roots, turning into red, orange, and yellow flowers. As the flowers returned every spring, his people celebrated. Little Gopher no longer went by the same name, as he was then called He Who Brought the Sunset to the Earth.
Indian Paintbrush Meaning and Symbolism in Modern Times
In modern times, the Indian Paintbrush flower is often associated with creativity, passion, and the pursuit of dreams. Its striking red and orange colors are thought to represent the fiery energy and enthusiasm necessary to achieve one’s goals.
Uses and Benefits of Indian Paintbrush
The flowers of Indian paintbrush plants are edible in moderate quantities, and they were historically consumed alongside fresh greens by various Native American tribes. The flowers have also been shown to have positive medicinal uses that are similar to those of garlic, such as anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and antibacterial benefits. However, Indian paintbrush plants, especially those growing in highly alkaline soil, take up large quantities of selenium. As a result, the roots, shoots, and leaves of the plant can be highly toxic (for more, see our in-depth guide to popular flowers that are toxic to cats, dogs, and other pets).
Indian paintbrush plants offer ecological benefits, especially in their native regions. They are a common food source for local pollinators and their larvae, including certain species of moths and butterflies, in addition to hummingbirds and bees.
How to Grow Indian Paintbrush
Indian paintbrush can typically be successfully grown in USDA hardiness zones four through eight with some species-based variance.
Indian paintbrush plants grow best in a location that receives full sunlight and soil that drains easily.
Indian paintbrush plants require acidic soil with a pH no greater than 6.8. They grow best in well-draining soil with sand or loam present.
Planting Tips and Techniques
Indian paintbrush plants have hemiparasitic roots that tap into neighboring plants’ roots to collect their nutrients. As a result, they are not usually successfully transplanted. It is recommended to start Indian paintbrush plants from seeds.
To plant, gently rake seeds into loose topsoil in the fall, allowing them to germinate over the cold winter period.
Watering, Fertilizing, and Mulching
Indian paintbrush requires moderate watering, but it must be allowed to drain and dry thoroughly between watering. Watering schedules can vary depending on your local temperature, weather, and humidity.
A desert plant, Indian paintbrush does not require fertilizing or mulching.
Where to Plant
Indian paintbrush is best planted in open, sunny areas. It can perform well in garden beds or containers, but it is essential to remember the plant’s hemiparasitic roots and to plant appropriate companion plants alongside the Indian paintbrushes to ensure they have adequate nutrient sources.
Caring for Indian Paintbrush
Pruning and Deadheading
Indian paintbrush plants do not require pruning or deadheading. Depending on whether yours is an annual or perennial species, they can either be cut back to remove spent blooms or mown down to spread seeds in the late fall.
Annual species of Indian paintbrush do not need to be overwintered since they are self-seeding and grow anew each year. Perennial varieties can be easily overwintered if they are grown in containers. Plants growing in the ground can have a layer of mulch added for protection from particularly harsh frosts, but this is usually not necessary within their natural growing zones.
Best Companion Plants for Indian Paintbrush
Typically, Indian paintbrushes do well planted alongside low-growing sedges and grasses such as:
- Pennsylvania sedge
- June grass
- Blue grama
- Buffalo grass
Indian paintbrushes are not necessarily planted with “companion” plants. Instead, they are planted with host plants that their roots can easily tap into, such as those listed above.
Creative Uses for Indian Paintbrush
Native, Natural, and Xeric Gardens
Indian paintbrushes are native to much of the western United States and Canada, making them a wonderful and easily adapted choice for creating a garden of native plants. Since they are naturally drought-tolerant, they are a fun way to add a splash of bright color to a xeric garden, as well.
Indian Paintbrush in Floral Arrangements
Indian paintbrush flowers are not commonly used in floral arrangements. However, they can add a striking pop of vibrant color to a mixed bouquet or in a bouquet on their own.
Displaying Indian Paintbrush in Your Home
If you live in an area where Indian paintbrushes grow naturally (and it is legal to do so), then you can pick them when they are in season to create a wildflower arrangement for your home.
Otherwise, Indian paintbrushes are featured in various artwork and crafts that can be displayed in the home to show your affinity for these lovely flowers and the story behind them.
Indian Paintbrush Crafts
There are a variety of creative ways you can craft with Indian paintbrush flowers. Their flower petals can be crushed up to create natural dyes. Additionally, the flowers are quite easy to hang dry. Once dried, they can be used to create long-lasting garlands and wreathes. They are also quite beautiful when pressed and preserved in any sort of resin creation (such as resin coasters, tabletops, bookmarks, keychains, and more).
Indian Paintbrush FAQs:
How Long Does Indian Paintbrush Bloom For?
The Indian paintbrush typically blooms from late winter until early spring, but the plant’s vibrantly colored inflorescence is on display throughout the year.
What Is the Ideal Climate for Growing Indian Paintbrush?
Indian paintbrush grows well in the western and southwestern United States. It typically requires desert-like conditions with full sun and fairly dry, well-draining soil.
Can Indian Paintbrush Grow in Containers or Indoors?
Indian paintbrush can grow indoors and in containers as long as it has enough sun, well-draining soil and is planted with companion plants such as grasses or sedges whose roots can act as hosts.
How Often Should I Water My Indian Paintbrush?
Water Indian paintbrushes thoroughly only when the soil has dried completely since the previous watering.
When Is the Best Time of Year to Plant Indian Paintbrush?
Indian paintbrush seeds are most successfully sown in fall and allowed to germinate in the cold of winter.
How Can I Protect My Indian Paintbrush Plants From Pests and Diseases?
Indian paintbrush plants are naturally resistant to pests and diseases.
How Can I Extend the Lifespan of Indian Paintbrush Flowers After They’ve Been Cut?
Put them in water right away, keep their stems clean, change their water every two to three days, and keep them away from direct sunlight.
Enjoying a Sunset of Colors With Indian Paintbrushes
Indian paintbrushes are stunning wildflowers enjoyed throughout the western United States. In the right areas, you might not even have to plant them in your garden to enjoy their natural beauty. However, they can be grown in well-draining, sunny, slightly acidic locations as long as they have appropriate host plants to feed off of. Whether you happen upon them in a meadow or take pains to grow them in your own garden, be sure to let these flowers remind you of the importance of your own individuality and where your unique talents place you in the world.
Andrew is the Editorial Director at Petal Republic. He holds a BSc degree in Plant Sciences and has trained professionally at leading floristry schools in London and Paris. In amongst overseeing a global editorial team, Andrew's a passionate content creator around all things flowers, floral design, gardening, and houseplants.