Indian paintbrush, also known as scarlet painted cup, is a tough and colorful wildflower found in open areas like grasslands, prairies, or meadows. This biennial (which lives for two years), develops oval rosettes during its first year of growth and produces stalks with insignificant flowers surrounded by much more colorful and dramatic bracts the second year. Indian paintbrush grows best in the open, sandy soil of fields, wildflower gardens, meadows, and prairies where they can tap into host plants for nutrients and water. Though this plant is fully trouble-free, it may be toxic to animals.
|Common Name||Scarlet painted cup, Indian paintbrush, painted cup|
|Botanical Name||Castilleja coccinea|
|Family||Orobanchaceae (formerly figwort/Scrophulariaceae)|
|Mature Size||1-2 ft. tall|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun|
|Soil Type||Moist, well-draining, sandy|
|Bloom Time||Early spring to early or mid-summer|
|Flower Color||Greenish-yellow surrounded by red, red-orange, orange-yellow bracts|
|Hardiness Zones||4-8 (USDA)|
|Native Area||North America|
|Toxicity||Toxic to animals|
Indian Paintbrush Care
Here are the main care requirements for growing Indian paintbrush:
- Plant in full sun for best results.
- Choose a location with moist, well-drained soil that's on the sandy side.
- Water younger plants consistently but do not make the soil soggy.
- Watch for extreme heat conditions from the sun which can cause the plant to decline, however moderate humidity is fine.
Because Indian paintbrush 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.
Indian paintbrush 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.
Keep Indian paintbrush 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
Indian paintbrush prefers areas with cooler climates and does very well in areas with cold winters. It cannot tolerate extreme heat and grows best in hardiness zones 4 to 8. Because it prefers moist, well-draining soil, it enjoys moderate humidity.
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.
Types of Indian Paintbrush
- 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 Indian Paintbrush From Seed
The best way to grow Indian paintbrush is through seed. These plants do not transplant well because of their connection to other surrounding plants. After flowering, the plant produces very tiny seeds before dying to reseed themselves. Sow seeds in early spring or late summer, when soil temperatures are around 55 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit during the early spring or late summer.
- Collect seeds by cutting a dead plant and shaking it over a piece of white paper. You will see the fine seeds on the paper. Alternatively, instead of harvesting the tiny seeds, you can crush a dead plant to use to "seed" the soil.
- Scatter seeds or a crushed plant over the soil and lightly cover with soil.
- Keep the soil moist, but not soggy.
- 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.
- Once established, you can encourage the growth of these plants by spreading additional seeds each fall.
How to Get Indian Paintbrush to Bloom
Bloom time is inconsistent, but you may spot blooms and bracts between February and May. Some regions may see blooms and bracts in July.
What do Indian Paintbrush Flowers Look and Smell Like?
Indian paintbrush flowers are unique in that they have bracts (pseudo leaves) that look like petals that were dipped in reddish-orange paint. What you are seeing are not the actual flowers of the plant, which are tiny and insignificant, but the bracts that are protecting the blossoms. The more flowers you have, the more bracts you will see. Blooms and bracts can be unpredictable in color, producing vibrant foliage one year and dull the next or vice-versa. This plant does not have a fragrance.
How to Encourage More Blooms
Make sure the plants are not overwatered or there will be no blooms and fewer bracts. Full sun, but not scorching sunlight, will encourage more blooms and bracts.
What does it mean that the Indian paintbrush has a hemiparasitic nature?
In plain language, this means that the Indian paintbrush burrows its roots into the root system of nearby plants to siphon nutrients and water. Though not essential for the survival of Indian paintbrush, this rooting action supplies it with nutrients to thrive and produce flowers. This practice rarely harms the host plant. Good hosts for Indian paintbrush include blue-eyed grass, bluebonnet, and beardtongue. Choose a host native to your area, if possible.
Is it easy to grow Indian paintbrush?
It can be quite difficult to grow this complicated wildflower in a garden usually because they need host plants most of the time, but not all of the time They can't be transplanted because of their relationship to host plants and prefer to seed themselves.
Is Indian paintbrush invasive?
Quite the opposite. It's considered an endangered species in some states, including New York. The plant is listed as extinct in other states including Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Delaware, and Louisiana.
Guide to Poisonous Plants. Colorado State University.
Indian Paintbrush. Texas A&M AgriLife Extension.
Indian Paintbrush. Missouri Department of Conservation.
Indian Paintbrush. New York Natural Heritage Program.
Indian Paintbrush. North Carolina State University Extension.