How to Grow and Care for Indian Paintbrush Plants

Indian paintbrush plant

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The Indian paintbrush plant is a genus of small, colorful wildflower found in clear areas like open grasslands or meadows. This biennial, of which there are about 200 species, develops oval rosettes during its first year of growth and 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 last 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 Indian paintbrush burrows its roots into the root system of nearby plants in order to siphon nutrients. Though not essential for the survival of an Indian paintbrush plant, 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 Indian paintbrush plants include blue eyed grass, bluebonnet, and beardtongue; try to choose a host native to your area.

Botanical Name Castilleja
Common Name Indian paintbrush plant
Plant Type Biennial
Mature Size 1 to 2 ft. tall
Sun Exposure Full sun 
Soil Type Well-draining
Soil pH Acidic
Bloom Time Spring to early summer
Flower Color Red, red-orange, orange-yellow
Hardiness Zones 4 to 8, USA
Native Area North America
Toxicity Toxic to humans and animals

Indian Paintbrush Care

With little effort, Indian paintbrush 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, but are only hardy in USDA zones 4 to 8.

These flowers are best used in open, free-growing gardens because of their need for other plants nearby. They're a great fit for natural-growing gardens or wildflower beds. Because they intermingle with other plants, they are not a good fit for manicured gardens.

Incorporating Indian paintbrush plants into your garden is as simple as sowing seeds and watching them grow. Make sure these plants are in an area with well-draining soil that gets plenty of sunshine. After the first year, these plants are drought-tolerant and won’t need much maintenance. They are not usually affected by many common pests or diseases.  

Light

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

Soil

The Indian paintbrush plant appreciates well-draining soil. These plants are naturally found in the sandy soil of semi-deserts and grasslands. Choose a planting location with excellent drainage to prevent waterlogging and other over-saturation problems.

Water

Keep Indian paintbrush plants well-watered for the first year, but be sure the soil isn’t soggy. Once they are established for the second year, these plants are quite drought-tolerant and will not need an abundance of watering. 

Temperature and Humidity

The Indian paintbrush 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 Indian paintbrush plant is one plant you won’t want to fertilize. In fact, over-fertilizing can harm the Indian paintbrush plant. Adding compost into your soil in the spring is fine, but that is all these flowers will need. 

Is the Indian Paintbrush Plant Toxic?

The Indian paintbrush plant is known to contain high amounts of selenium, which can be toxic if ingested in large amounts. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, and fatigue. High amounts of selenium can be fatal in horses. 

Indian Paintbrush 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': 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 Plants from Seed

The best way to grow Indian paintbrush plants is through seed. These plants do not transplant well. Sow your own Indian paintbrush 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 your seeds over the soil and lightly cover them with soil. 
  2. Keep your 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 may take months to appear.
  4. Once established, you can encourage the growth of these plants by spreading additional seeds each fall.