How to Grow and Care for Scarlet Painted Cup Plants

Indian paintbrush plant

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The scarlet painted cup plant (Castilleja coccinea) is a colorful wildflower found in open areas like grasslands, prairies, or meadows. This biennial, of which there are about 200 species, develops oval rosettes during its first year of growth and produces stalks with irregular leaves and flowers the second year. Blooms can be unpredictable in color, producing vibrant foliage one year and dull the next.  After flowering, the plant produces seeds before dying.

Though this plant only lives for two years, these fancy little flowers often reseed themselves if conditions are favorable. It does well near other plants, especially grasses, because of its hemi-parasitic nature. In plain language, this means that the the scarlet painted cup burrows its roots into the root system of nearby plants in order to siphon nutrients and water. Though not essential for the survival of a scarlet painted cup, this rooting action supplies it with nutrients to thrive and produce flowers. It's worth noting that this practice rarely harms the host plant. Good hosts for scarlet painted cup plants include blue eyed grass, bluebonnet, and beardtongue. Choose a host native to your area, if possible.

Botanical Name Castilleja coccinea
Common Name Scarlet Painted Cup, Indian Paintbrush, Painted Cup
Plant Type Biennial
Mature Size 1 to 2 feet tall
Sun Exposure Full sun 
Soil Type Moist, well-draining
Soil pH Acidic
Bloom Time Spring to early summer
Flower Color Red, red-orange, orange-yellow
Hardiness Zones 4 to 8, USDA
Native Area North America
Toxicity Toxic to humans and animals

Scarlet Painted Cup Care

With little effort, scarlet painted cup plants will reward you with plenty of colorful, cheery flowers (more correctly known as bracts). The actual flowers are wrapped inside these colorful bracts and are typically a less showy color. These plants do well in areas with cold winters, and are hardy in USDA zones 4 to 8.

These plants are best used for naturalizing open fields, native plant gardens, wildflower gardens, meadows, and prairies because of their hemi-parasitic nature and the need to grow near preferred host plants. They are not a good fit for manicured, composed gardens.

Establishing scarlet painted cup plants is as simple as direct-sowing seeds in the ground and watching them grow, but make sure the area has well-draining soil that receives full sun. They are not usually affected by many common pests or diseases.  

Light

Because the scarlet painted cup plant is naturally found in wide open areas, this wildflower needs full sun to thrive. These plants can have unpredictable foliage coloring, and shady conditions will further hinder bloom development.

Soil

The scarlet painted cup appreciates moist but well-draining soil. These plants are naturally found in prairies, rocky glades, moist and open woodlands, thickets and streambanks as well as in the sandy soil of semi-deserts and grasslands. Choose a planting location with excellent drainage to prevent overly-wet conditions.

Water

Keep scarlet painted cup plants well-watered for the first year, but be sure the soil isn’t soggy. Once they are established in their second year, they can be drought-tolerant but prefer medium moisture.  

Temperature and Humidity

The scarlet painted cup plant prefers areas with cooler climates, even tolerating very cold winters. It cannot tolerate extreme heat and grows best in zones 4 to 8. Because it prefers moist, well-draining soil, it enjoys moderate humidity. 

Fertilizer

The scarlet painted cup is one plant you don’t want to fertilize. In fact, over-fertilizing can harm the plant. Adding compost to soil in the spring is fine to do, but additional fertilizer is not recommended. 


Scarlet Painted Cup Varieties

  • Castilleja ambigua 'Johnny-nip': This variety boasts bracts in yellow, white, pink, or purple and is commonly found in the coastal salt marshes or wet meadows of California.
  • Castilleja angustifolia 'Desert Indian Paintbrush': This plant sports gray-green to purple-red foliage and bright red bracts covering yellow flowers. As suggested by its name, these flowers thrive in the rocky, sandy soil found in deserts or scrublands. 
  • Castilleja cinerea 'Ashgray Indian Paintbrush': This variety is native to San Bernardino County, California. The Ashgray Indian paintbrush gets its name from the coat of gray hairs it wears. These fuzzy flowers come in dusty red and pink-purple and grow in dry areas such as deserts, scrublands, or woodlands. Interestingly, these plants produce different colored flowers based on the direction they are facing. Northern-facing flowers tend to be more yellow while southern-facing flowers are redder. 

Growing Scarlet Painted Cup Plants from Seed

The best way to grow scarlet painted cup plants is through seed. These plants do not transplant well. Sow your own scarlet painted cup seeds in early spring or late summer, when soil temperatures are around 55 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit. You can do this in the early spring or late summer. 

  1. Scatter seeds over the soil and lightly cover them with soil. 
  2. Keep the soil moist, but not soggy. 
  3. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t see sprouts for some time. These plants are slow to germinate and might take months to appear.
  4. Once established, you can encourage the growth of these plants by spreading additional seeds each fall.