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Indian Paintbrush, Prairie-fire

KingdomPlantaePlants, but not fungi, lichens, or algae
SubkingdomTracheobiontaVascular plants—plants with a “circulatory system” for delivering water and nutrients
DivisionMagnoliophytaFlowering plants, also known as angiosperms
ClassMagnoliopsidaDicotyledons—plants with two initial seed leaves
SubclassAsteridaeA large class that encompasses asters
OrderLamialesAromatic herbs and shrubs, including lavender, lilac, olive, jasmine, ash, teak, snapdragon, sesame, psyllium, garden sage, mint, basil, and rosemary
FamilyOrobanchaceaeBroomrape family of parasitic plants
GenusCastillejaNamed for Spanish botanist Domingo Castillejo

About plant names...

The Castilleja genus, comprised of about 200 species, is native to the Americas, northern Asia, and part of Siberia. The genus takes its name from Spanish botanist Domingo Castillejo (1744-1793), a name chosen by his teacher, botanist José Celestino Mutis. They are most commonly known as Indian paintbrush, and also called prairie-fire. Both names are apt and poetic. The flowerheads resemble both brightly daubed paintbrushes and, in groups, dancing flames. Indian paintbrushes are hemiparasitic—they derive some of their nutrients by attaching to the roots of other plants. This dependency on surrounding plants makes paintbrushes difficult to transplant.

If you’re interested in Castillejas, don’t miss Mark Egger’s superb photographic compilation on Flickr. Mark is perhaps the world’s foremost expert on this genus.

This table compares several species of Indian paintbrush. Click the species name for the article on each species.


Castilleja (Indian Paintbrush, Prairie-fire)

Cobwebby Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja arachnoidea) · 8/29/2007 · Near Crater Lake, OR
≈ 3½ × 5" (8.8 × 13 cm)

Castilleja (Indian Paintbrush, Prairie-fire)

Woolly Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja foliolosa) · 2/26/2010 · Torrey Pines State Park, La Jolla, CA
≈ 2 × 1½" (5.9 × 3.9 cm)

Castilleja arachnoidea

Castilleja chromosa

Castilleja foliolosa
Common Name

Cobwebby Indian Paintbrush

Common Paintbrush

Woolly Indian Paintbrush
Plant 3-12" (7.6-30 cm) high Plants are less than 24" (60 cm) tall, sometimes as little as 4" (10 cm). 12-24" (30-60 cm) tall, multiply branched, coated with a “felt” of white to gray, branched hairs.
Flowers Yellow to pale green or purplish red in color, appearing in June. Bracts—modified leaves—appear under each flower, and are ¼-¾" (6.3-19 mm) long. They are yellowish to dull red. Bright red (or red-orange or yellow) “flowers” are really bracts—modified leaves, each up to 1½" (3.8 cm) long. The real flowers are mostly hidden, tubular in shape, and yellow-green in color. They appear from May to September. Flower clusters are 1-8" (3-20 cm). Each flower is ½-⅞" (1.5-2.5 cm) in size, surrounded with bracts (modified leaves) of similar size. Flowers are orange-red or sometimes yellow-green in color, appearing from March to June.
Leaves ¾-2" (2-6 cm) long, unlobed or forked into lobes. Leaves are linear-lanceolate (long and narrow or shaped like a lance), composed of three to five narrow lobes, like fingers. They are ¾-2½" (2-7 cm) in length. ⅜-1¾" (1-5 cm) long, mostly linear (long and narrow), sometimes forked.
Fruit Fruit capsules are about ⅜" (1 cm) long. Two-chambered capsules. ⅜-½" (1-1.5 cm) long, with seeds that are ¹/₃₂-¹/₁₆" (1.5-2 mm).
Range/ Zones


Habitats Open summits, dry rocks, elevations 1.1-1.9 mi (1.7-3 km) Desert shrub, grassland, and pinjon-juniper communities, at elevations from below sea level (Death Valley) to 3200' (975 m) Yellow pine forest, foothills woodlands, chaparral, grasslands
Type Wild Wild Wild


Castilleja integra

Castilleja linariifolia

Castilleja miniata
Common Name

Foothill Paintbrush

Wyoming Indian Paintbrush

Giant Red Indian Paintbrush
Plant Plants are up to 20" (50 cm) in height, covered with fuzzy white hairs. Plants are 12-40' (3.7-12 m) tall, and often branched. (Sometimes up to 6½' (2 m).) Initially grayish-green, stems and leaves become tinged with purple over time. 18-36" (45-91 cm) high, with unbranched or rarely branched stems. Stems are green, becoming purplish with age.
Flowers Flowers are greenish, with a bright scarlet tinge; largely hidden by the bracts, specialized leaves that are red-orange or sometimes yellowish in color. Appear from April to October. Flowerheads are ⅞-2" (2.5-5.2 cm) in size. Bright red bracts (modified leaves) about 1¼" (3.4 cm) long mostly hide drab yellow-greenish flowers within. Flowers appear from May to October. The flowerheads, 1-6" (3-15 cm) in size, are mostly bracts (modified leaves), colored crimson or scarlet; the true flowers are small, green, and easily overlooked.
Leaves linear, long and narrow, hairless on top and hairy beneath, often curled and almost tubular in shape. Leaves are entire, not divided into lobes or forks. Leaves are linear, long and narrow, usually entire (undivided), though sometimes upper leaves are lobed. They are often curled, almost tubelike. Leaves are 1-2" (3-6 cm) long, lanceolate (lance-shaped) and entire (undivided), with sharp tips.
Fruit   Two-chambered capsules. Fruits are ⅛-⅜" (6-12 mm) in size, containing seeds that are ¹/₃₂-¹/₁₆" (1.5-2 mm).
Range/ Zones

Habitats Dry hills, woodlands, mesas, plains, high prairies, at elevations of 4800-10197' (1.5-3.1 km) Among sagebrush and grasses, pinyon/juniper and ponderosa pines; between 3280-9842' (999-2999 m) Moist places, such as meadows and bogs; elevations of 0-137784" (0-3499713 mm)
Type Wild Wild Wild


Castilleja rhexiifolia

Castilleja subinclusa var. franciscana
Common Name

Splitleaf Indian Paintbrush

Longleaf Indian Paintbrush
Plant Plants occur in small clusters, with unbranched purplish or red stems. 12-47" (30-120 cm) tall, grayish-green, becoming purplish with age.
Flowers A pink/purple hue rather than the more common strong red or red-orange colors. In addition to purple-magenta, pink-white, pink-magenta and crimson also occur. Flowers are mostly bracts—modified leaves—which largely enclose greenish flowers. Flowerheads are 2-16" (6-40 cm) in size, with bright red to orange-red or yellow bracts, appearing from March to May. The flowers are ¾-1¼" (2-3.2 cm) long, yellow-green, cigar-shaped, and often much more prominent than those on other Castillejas.
Leaves Leaves are broadly lanceolate (lance-shaped), and entire (unlobed). 1-3" (3-8 cm) long, more or less lanceolate (lance-shaped), unlobed or lobed.
Fruit   ⅜-½" (1-1.5 cm) in size, with ¹/₁₆" (2 mm) seeds.
Range/ Zones

Habitats Alpine and subalpine meadows in the Rocky Mountains and related western mountain ranges. Mixed evergreen forests, grasslands, coastal areas; elevations less than 328' (100 m)
Type Wild Wild


Identification: Plants vary in size between about 6-79" (15-200 cm), most below two feet. They may be annuals, small shrublike perennials, or groups of erect, unbranched stems. Leaves may be entire (undivided), or lobed or forked. Flowers are in groups atop stems. Most of the color comes from bracts and sepals that partly enclose the flowers. Reds, magentas, and yellows are common. They are found in many locations in western North America. Detailed range maps for various Castillejas are available at BONAP’s North American Plant Atlas.

Edibility: Flowers of most paintbrushes are edible, with health benefits similar to those of garlic, when consumed in modest quantities. But the plants retain and concentrate the element selenium from the soil in the roots and leaves, making these parts of the plants poisonous. So keep to the flowers alone, in small amounts.

Online References:

Castilleja at Mark Egger’s Castilleja site on Flickr

Castilleja on Calflora

Castilleja on Wikipedia

Castilleja on the USDA Plants Database


Turner, Mark, Gustafson, Phyllis, Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest, Timber Press, 2006

Castilleja description by Thomas H. Kent, last updated 16 Aug 2013.

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Castilleja (Indian Paintbrush, Prairie-fire)

Wyoming Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja linariifolia) · 5/3/2007 · Death Valley Area · By Jeffrey A. Barry

Castilleja (Indian Paintbrush, Prairie-fire)

Longleaf Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja subinclusa var. franciscana) · Found near the Golden Gate bridge. · 6/12/2007 · Sausalito, CA
≈ 11 × 7" (28 × 18 cm)