How to Plant and Grow Indian Paintbrush

This perennial does best when paired with other native plants.

Native to the American Southwest, Indian paintbrush (Castilleja spp.) colors a meadow or woodland garden with showy clusters of red-orange leaves (aka bracts) in late spring or early summer. The colorful bracts, which resemble paintbrushes dipped in paint, mask the plant’s actual flowers. These small blossoms are vital for setting seed, of course, but are otherwise unremarkable. Indian paintbrush (also called desert Indian paintbrush) is known to be slightly unpredictable. Some years the foliage will be brilliantly colored, and other years it will be muted. Accept this unpredictability as part of the plant’s charm.  

A symbiotic plant, Indian paintbrush grows best when planted where its root system can tap into the root system of a host plant to obtain nutrients. The host plant is rarely harmed by the relationship, and Indian paintbrush thrives. Good host plants include little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), beardtongue (Penstemon), and blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium).

The leaves and roots of Indian paintbrush can be toxic to humans and livestock.

Indian Paintbrush Overview

Genus Name Castilleja
Common Name Indian Paintbrush
Plant Type Perennial
Light Part Sun, Sun
Height 6 to 40 inches
Width 4 to 12 inches
Flower Color Orange, Red
Season Features Spring Bloom, Summer Bloom
Special Features Attracts Birds
Zones 10, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9
Propagation Seed
Problem Solvers Drought Tolerant

Where to Plant Indian Paintbrush

Wild Indian paintbrush thrives in sandy soil, sagebrush plains, grassland, and semidesert locations up to 9,500 feet. That's why it's best suited for naturalized areas and prairie pockets alongside other native plants rather than manicured gardens.

How and When to Plant Indian Paintbrush

Seeding is the best way to plant Indian paintbrush because container-grown plants are difficult to transplant. Seed Indian paintbrush in late summer in sandy, well-drained soil. Be patient; the seeds may take a few months to germinate; they need a period of cold stratification first. If the seed is pre-stratified, sow it in early spring.

Expect the young biennial plants to unfurl a low-growing rosette of foliage during that first growing season. Colorful bracts appear in spring or early summer of the second growing season, followed by seeds in the fall. The plant will die shortly after setting the seed that will become a new generation of Indian paintbrush.

Indian Paintbrush Care Tips


Indian paintbrush grows best in full sun. Shade of any kind diminishes its blossoms.

Soil and Water

Indian paintbrush prefers sandy, acidic soil between 5.1-5.5 pH but can tolerate neutral soil. Keep the soil moist—but not soggy—during the first year. After that, any surviving plants will be drought-tolerant and only need occasional watering during the second year.

Temperature and Humidity

Indian paintbrush thrives in moderate temperatures and humidity. It can survive cold winters but doesn't do well in intense heat.


Do not fertilize Indian paintbrush.

Potting and Repotting Indian Paintbrush

Growing Indian paintbrush in a container is complicated, but it can be done. Fill a large container with sandy, well-draining soil and sow seeds for both Indian paintbrush and one of its preferred host plants. Keep the soil slightly moist for the first year. Because Indian paintbrush is a biennial that doesn't transplant well, expect to have the plant for only two years. Repotting won't be needed or possible.

Pests and Problems

Indian paintbrush plants are naturally resistant to pests and diseases.

How to Propagate Indian Paintbrush

Although the plants will reseed in optimal growing conditions, you'll increase your chances of developing a colony of Indian paintbrush plants by sowing additional seeds every autumn. If that's your plan, harvest the seedpods as soon as they start to look dry and brown. Spread them out to finish drying. Remove the seeds and store them in a brown paper bag in a cool, dry space. Shake the bag often until it's time to plant.

Types of Indian Paintbrush

Wholeleaf Indian Paintbrush

Wholeleaf Indian paintbrush (Castilleja integra) is one of the larger varieties of Indian paintbrush. It typically stands 6-18 inches tall but can grow to as much as 36 inches. "Whole" in the name refers to the fact that the leaves don't have the division seen in many Indian paintbrush plants. Zones 4-10

Texas Indian Paintbrush

Texas Indian paintbrush (Castilleja indivisa) is native to Texas, grows 12-18 inches high, and is topped by bright red spikes. A yellow or white variation sometimes occurs. It's not easy to cultivate, but the spectacular flowers make it worth the effort. Zones 4-8

Scarlet Painted Cup Indian Paintbrush

Indian paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea), also called scarlet painted cup for its attractive spikes, is present primarily in the Eastern states. Like other Indian paintbrushes, it is popular with bees and hummingbirds. Zones 4-9

Indian Paintbrush Companion Plants

Little Bluestem

Schizachyrium scoparium
Susan Gilmore

A mainstay of the now nearly lost tallgrass prairie, little bluestem was once king of regions where buffalo roamed. Today, in your garden, it's gorgeous when backlit by the sun, especially in fall when it turns a glorious red, tan, or gold. This fine-textured, warm-season grass can be incorporated easily into mixed borders, meadows, and wild gardens. It has bluish or green stems and produces tan flower spikelets, which turn silvery white as they age and dry well. It is happy in most soils, but little bluestem needs full sun.


With a rainbow of colors to choose from, beardtonge, also called penstemon are lovely additions to the garden. The diversity of these plants is remarkable, with several hundred species available. Penstemons are tough perennials that stand up to intense growing conditions.

Blue-Eyed Grass

Star-shaped, blue-purple flowers decorate blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium spp.) in spring and early summer. Although "grass" is part of its name, blue-eyed grass is actually in the iris family. Its sturdy leaves remain green and upright throughout the growing season.

Blazing Star

Blazing Star Liatris
Marty Baldwin

Valued for its unusual flower shape, blazing star sends up erect spires of usually magenta, sometimes white flowers. Emerging from grasslike foliage, the blooms make a dramatic statement in flower gardens with other perennials, annuals, or shrubs. Well-drained but moisture-retentive soil is a must for this prairie native.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Does Indian paintbrush spread?

    Indian paintbrush needs a compatible host plant to survive. When it is unable to obtain the nutrients it needs, it spreads until it locates the roots of another plant.

  • How do I get Indian paintbrush plants to live longer than two years?

    The plants will die after they flower during the second year, but they self-seed to produce the next generation of Indian paintbrush, providing a continuous supply of the striking plant.

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  1. Species Spotlight. National Park Service

  2. Paintbrush. Colorado State University

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