CO-Horts Blog

Thursday, August 29, 2019

A Selection of Indian Paintbrush of the Southwest Colorado Mountains by Yvette Henson

Indian paintbrush has always been one of my favorite wildflowers.  When I was living I Louisiana, homesick for summers in the southwest Colorado Mountains, I often dreamed of Indian paintbrush and columbines.  Now, I am fortunate to live in the SW Colorado Mountains again and this summer I have been even more infatuated with our Indian paintbrushes.  I will share the species I have seen this summer in this blog post.  I would love it if those who read this blog will post pictures of the Indian paintbrushes they have seen in the comments. 

Indian paintbrushes are in the genus Castilleja, named for the Spanish botanist, Domingo Castillejo. Without getting into the details, the genus Castilleja has recently been moved from the Scrophulariaceae family to the Orobancaceae family.  One of the reasons is its semi-parasitic nature.  If you want more information, research the work botanists are doing for the Flora of North America, etc. using plant DNA and not just morphological characteristics to classify plants.  For the plants featured in this blog post, I have used the scientific names found in the Flora of Colorado by Jennifer Ackerfield.  

Our native paintbrushes possibly sometimes cross, making them difficult to identify at times.  I will do my best to correctly identify the paintbrush in this blog post.  One thing that helps to identify them is the habitat they are growing in.  There is also often a range of color in plants of each species.  The colored portion that attracts us is actually not the corolla of the flower but are modified leaves called bracts.  This is a photo of an actual corolla with sexual parts inside (Castilleja miniata).   

Castilleja corolla including sexual parts

Indian paint brushes are semi-parasitic on the roots of other plants, which is important if  you would like to try to grow them from seed.  They often need a host plant to germinate and grow on.  

To most of us, the red colored paint brushes, are what come to mind when we ‘picture’ Indian paintbrushes.  In fact the reds are the most common and abundant. 

Castilleja chromosa, desert paintbrush, can be found growing in spring, from desert to montane, often in sage brush habitats.  Sage and blue gramma grass are two of the species it is semi-parasitic on.  It is usually under a foot tall and can grow into a wide clump.  The leaves and bracts are softly hairy.  

Desert Paintbrush, Castilleja chromosa

Castilleja linariifolia, Wyoming paintbrush, can be found blooming in the summer from foothills to montane with sage brush, pinion and juniper and ponderosa pine.  Sometimes it can be found growing with aspen.  It is the most common Indian paintbrush in Utah and is the state flower of Wyoming.  Its stiff stems are 2’ tall (or more), sometimes branched, with narrow, usually entire leaves.  The bracts are orangish-red.  

Wyoming paintbrush, Castilleja linariifolia

Castlleja miniata, scarlet paintbrush, grows in moist montane and subalpine forests and meadows. Its stems are usually unbranched and more ‘pliable, with wider leaves than C. linariifolia.  The upper leaves and lowest bracts are often divided into three lobes, the center lobe being the widest.  The color of its bracts can range from salmon-orange to pinkish-red.

scarlet paintbrush, Castilleja miniata

The next three species may cross and some botanist even think they could be the same species.  But for now I’m going to try to keep them separate.

Castilleja septentrionales, northern or sulphur paintbrush, is found in montane and subalpine forests and meadows and along streams in summer.  It has white to yellow bracts and dark stems.  It is 1.5’ tall on average, taller than the next species, C. occidentalis

Sulphur paintbrush, Castilleja septentrionales

Castilleja occidentalis, western or alpine paintbrush, is abundant all summer in dry to moist subalpine meadows and most often in the alpine tundra, where it often grows with C. rhexifolia.  It has creamy- yellow bracts and dark, smooth stems but is usually only about 6-8” tall. 

western alpine paintbrush, Castilleja occidentalis

Castilleja rhexifolia,  split-leaf or rosy paintbrush, can be found blooming from snow-melt to frost in moist subalpine to alpine tundra, along with C. occidentalis.  The bracts are many shades of fushia-pink.  Not only does it reportedly cross with C.  occidentalis, making some interesting color combinations, but it apparently can cross with C. miniata as well.

Rosy paintbrush, Castilleja rhexifolia, showing variation in color

Castilleja rhexifolia and Castilleja occidentalis  hybrid?
Who knows how botanists will classify these several Indian paintbrushes in the future, whether they are different varieties of the same species or still seen as separate species.  Regardless, they are some of the most abundant and iconic wildflowers of the Southwest Colorado mountains and will remain some of my favorites!   


  1. Very helpful descriptions. I am motivated to pay closer attention on my hikes. THANK YOU. Molly

  2. I've seen the alpine and desert paintbrush on my hikes this summer, but don't have any good pictures! I really enjoyed learning more about this plant and seeing some of the less common varieties.

  3. Nice post. I really enjoy reading it.keep on writing.Thanks for