Gone with the wind – Indian paintbrush

Still flowering at this time of year, the flamboyant Indian paintbrush, Castilleja coccinea (also seeds can be collected) has one of the best common names given to a wildflower – someone must have watched the colourful leafy bracts reflecting red-orange paint strokes over the blue sky!

Castilleja coccinea

Castilleja coccinea – Indian paintbrush

Many species with seeds adapted for wind dispersal have various helping ‘devices’ (wings, hairs…). In the case of Castilleja, the seeds have a honeycomb outerlayer – nature’s design for helping with the process. The honeycomb pattern is produced by dead, air-filled cells of the single-layered seed coat. Castilleja coccinea seedsCastilleja coccinea seeds (This is as close I could get with my camera and please ignore the debris)

Castilleja and few other Orobanchaceae present the most impressive variation of honeycomb-patterned seed coat, where both the outer and inner tangential walls are dissolved and all that remains is a loose honeycomb ‘cage’. 

About the germination:
I intend to include Castilleja in a small flower meadow, so I gather this info and I shall experiment. The difficulty is to start a small population because like other hemiparasitic plants it needs its host plants to help it grow. Mostly behaves as a biennial, and in most cases if successful, it will reseed around.

Various studies had shown that C. coccinea will establish connections with the roots of a wide range of host species. It will germinate by itself but it won’t establish and grow well without a host. The best method is to sow it outdoors in the spring (it is a warm germinator) in an area where few preferred plant host are growing (most common: little bluestem, prairie smoke, grama grass…) or in pots in combination with seeds/young seedlings of the host plants (use peat or coco-fiber pots as it dislikes transplanting).
Also, other essentials factors for good germination and survival are good moisture and surface sowing (light sensitive).

I showed at some point another beautiful Castilleja, C. applegatei var. viscida in a mountain meadow from the Wasatch Mountains.

4 replies
  1. Tina
    Tina says:

    Fabulous photos–I’ve never seen the seeds before. I’ve never grown paintbrush, though there is a lovely native which blooms here in late spring.

    • diversifolius
      diversifolius says:

      I took the seeds pictures by chance :), wanting to see if there are seeds between the capsules debris (should have been more seeds but there was bugs damage of some sort).

  2. willisjw
    willisjw says:

    I’ve seen Indian Paintbrush for years in the west. In fact as you were writing this I was photographing some in Utah. But I had never made the connection that they were part of the Orobanchaceae. I guess that’s why you don’t see them casually growing in the east. But trying to establish them with some host plants sounds like a great idea. Remarkable seeds too!

    • diversifolius
      diversifolius says:

      We’ve also seen quite a few on a trip to Utah few years ago; I still see the scenery in my mind – an alpine meadow full of Castilleja and Lupins is hard to forget!
      I had no idea about the interesting seed coat until I took the close-up.

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