Updated: Dec 5, 2019
While the State of Minnesota is solemnly awaiting the weather to catch up with the Spring Equinox, my son and I ventured southward to Texas for a weekend to visit family. While traversing my parents’ one-acre lot my young son discovered a small bunch of bright pink flowers and happily proceeded to pick them from the yard. For the full visit, despite my efforts to goad him into admiring other white or blue posies, these large, pink, single-stemmed flowers became a favorite of his to search out, pick, and collect.
A little investigation revealed the flowers were the Texan variety of Indian Paintbrush, a flower so named because it looks like its end has been dipped in bright paint. A little research showed that Indian paintbrush comes in a wide variety of colors and—lo and behold!—is native to the North Star State, too, although in a different color.
Its scientific genus is Castilleja: Castilleja for the Spanish botanist who discovered them (Domingo Castilleja) and, in Minnesota, Coccinea, meaning “red”, is the species. With almost 200 species within the genus, Indian paintbrush is native across most of North America, from southern Texas all the way up into Canada.
In contrast to it being pretty, it turns out Indian Paintbrush is a greedy, thieving little plant. Like mistletoe, which pulls its nutrients from host trees, Indian Paintbrush is a hemiparasitic, which means it derives some of its nutrients—like water and minerals—from surrounding greenery even though it’s still getting energy and nutrients through photosynthesization of sunlight. For gardeners, this means Indian Paintbrush can be damaging to nearby flora, so it’s best to plant far away (if you’re intentionally planting it) or weed them out if discovered near or in gardens.
The flower of the Indian Paintbrush is well hidden: The colored portions of the plant are actually leaf bracts, not petals, and the flower—a small, pointed, yellow segment—hides bashfully within them. The leaf bracts come in a variety of colors: white, magenta, purple, deep red, orange, and yellow.
Despite its thieving and bashful qualities, this plant holds medicinal value for those looking to forage. Colored leaf bracts can be consumed in small amounts and in moderation (perhaps as a colorful sprinkling atop a salad) and are said to have a mild sweetness. Consumption of these colorful parts only—green parts of the plant and roots should NOT be consumed!—provide high levels of Selenium, which may aid in rheumatism and boost the immune system.
Bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds love this plant! If you’re interested in adding Indian Paintbrush to your landscape to beautify your own segment of the local wild and help propagate this native plant, seeds can be purchased from these and other websites: Seed-balls.com, AmericanMeadows.com, and VermontWildflowerFarm.com. It’s a tough little plant to get going, though, so NatureSeed.com suggests planting seeds in “rocky, sandy soil with good drainage and place in full sun or part shade. Remember to include a host plant or two, preferably plants that are naturally found sharing the same habitat as Indian paintbrush.”
I am looking into a handful of seeds to scatter along the edge of our driveway, which is altogether sunny, sandy, and rocky (gravel driveways, anyone?), with lots of native grasses and weeds for this little hemiparasite to feed off of. Wish me luck, and happy painting, everyone!