There’s nothing quite like the month of March to get folks daydreaming about summer. With the final weeks of winter slowly melting away, our thoughts begin to turn to our gardens, landscapes, and the great outdoors. For me summertime is when I like to retreat into the mountains. It’s here that I feel most alive, and the place that I can recharge my batteries. During these hikes many wildflowers catch my attention. They are all very beautiful in their own way, growing and blooming in various colors such as yellow, white, pink, red, and blue. Most of the time they are briefly admired as I walk past, or sometimes one will catch my eye and I’ll give it a second look. Yet there is one particular wildflower that demands my full attention every time I stumble upon it. With its vibrant red and orange flowers jutting up from the surrounding vegetation, Indian paintbrush puts on a showy display unmatched by most wildflowers. If wildflowers were cars, Indian paintbrush would be the bright red Ferrari cruising down a street full of Toyotas. If wildflowers were birds, it would be a proud peacock in a field full of pigeons. If wildflowers were…okay you probably get the picture.
The Legend of Indian Paintbrush
Indian paintbrush (Castilleja sp.) has been capturing our imaginations for centuries. Like its name implies, the Native Americans were the first people to find this wildflower so intriguing. A legend from the Plains tribe is said to explain the origins of Indian paintbrush. The legend tells of a young brave who painted great pictures of his hunts and the world around him. He was a very talented painter, and his paintings drew the admiration of everyone who saw them. Eventually, the young brave decided he wanted to capture the beauty of the sunset in a painting. Frustrated and unsatisfied with his first attempt, he asked for help and guidance from the Great Spirit. The Great Spirit, during a dream, directed the young brave to where he could find paintbrushes capable of reproducing the colors he so desired. With these, he painted a masterpiece and discarded the spent brushes in a field. In the morning he discovered his used paintbrushes had taken root and sprouted the flowers we now call Indian paintbrush.
A North American Native Not Commonly Found in the Landscape
These native wildflowers can be found all throughout western North America, from Alaska all the way down to South America. They are easily identified by their bright, showy bracts (which make up the flower) growing out of a terminal head or spike. Blooming from April to September allows for plenty of time to spot these show-offs growing in fields, mountain meadows, stream banks, open woods, and along low coasts. Indian paintbrush can be as low-growing as a few inches, or as tall as three feet depending on location and species. Some species are perennial and will return year after year, while some are annual and live only one growing season. With such an eye-catching display, obvious attractiveness, and widespread popularity, why is it we don’t see more of them planted in our gardens and landscapes?
The Beautiful Parasite
The truth is, Indian paintbrush has a dirty little secret. It’s part of a group of plants that botanists call hemiparasites. Basically, our beloved Indian paintbrush is a parasite that needs a host plant to survive. Unable to obtain its own nutrients, minerals, and water from the soil, it spreads its roots until it finds the roots of another plant. Once contacted, the roots of Indian paintbrush penetrate the roots of the host plant and begin to steal nutrients. Indian paintbrush is not very picky about what kind of plants make good hosts and apparently almost any herbaceous or woody plant will work. This parasitical trait also makes any attempt to transplant Indian paintbrush impossible, as the delicate intertwining of root systems is easily disturbed. It also means that Indian paintbrush cannot be grown by itself, but needs a host plant to help it along. Soil conditions also need to be similar to its native habitat. Attempting to grow it in a garden is difficult, but definitely not impossible. Any gardener that is seeking a challenge will find Indian paintbrush to be a worthy, beneficial experience. Some gardeners have seen success growing Indian paintbrush in containers and pots. Fill the container with 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.
Indian paintbrush seeds, like the ones included in our Great Basin Wildflower Blend and our Rocky Mountain Wildflower Blend, make a bold statement in any garden or landscape. They provide a challenging, yet rewarding experience for anyone daring enough to attempt to harness their splendor. Like the young Indian brave, you too can capture a piece of the sunset as you grow these mischievous yet exquisite little beauties.