Bursts of Color: Indian Paintbrush

This parasitic beauty is a common flower along California’s trails. Learn more about its biology.

Indian paintbrushes are parasitic plants.

Indian paintbrushes can still photosynthesize just like any other plant, but they are better able to survive poor weather conditions by stealing from their neighbors.

Paintbrushes parasitize other plants using structures called haustoria. Haustoria attach to the roots of host plants, creating a connection that allows the paintbrush to steal nutrients and water.

Indian paintbrushes vary in color.

Paintbrushes can be found in shades of red, pink, and yellow. In California, they bloom from February to May, allowing you to witness their different colors.

The top “brush” of the plant isn’t a flower.

The top “brush” of the indian paintbrush deceptively looks like a flower. This showy top is actually composed of modified leaves, which house the flowers. The flowers themselves look like small tubes.

Paintbrush copy Logo.jpg
Paintbrush at Land’s End in San Francisco

Indian paintbrushes don’t make very good garden plants.

Because they are parasitic and require a host plant, it is very difficult to grow indian paintbrushes in your garden. While I’ve never tried it myself, gardeners have found success in growing paintbrushes in the same pot as a good host plant. For more information on how to grow paintbrushes, feel free to check out this paintbrush gardening article from SF Gate.

Cool facts about indian paintbrushes:

  • Indian paintbrushes belong to genus Castilleja, which includes over 200 species of plants. The species are spread throughout the United States and Mexico, with 35 in California alone.
  • The genus name of the indian paintbrush, Castilleja, was named for Spanish botanist Domingo Castillejo.

Resources to learn more:

Author: Taylor Crisologo

Taylor studied biology at Cornell University, where she worked with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology on projects ranging from breeding herring gulls off the coast of Maine to dancing lyrebirds in Australia’s Blue Mountains. When she’s not researching great places to experience Bay Area nature, you can find her birding or reading a book at home with her husband and their two indoor cats (Max and Penelope).

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