Native to the American Southwest, Indian paintbrush colors a meadow or perennial 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.
Indian Paintbrush Care
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. 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).
Seeding is the best way to plant Indian paintbrush because container-grown plants are difficult to transplant. Seed Indian paintbrush in early spring or late summer in full sun and well-drained soil that's between 55 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Be patient; the seeds may take a few months to germinate.
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.) Do not fertilize. Expect young 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.
Although plants will reseed in optimal growing conditions, you'll increase your chances of developing a colony of Indian paintbrush plants by planting 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, then store them in a brown paper bag in a cool, dry space. Shake the bag often until it's time to plant.
Plant Indian Paintbrush With:
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.
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 even shrubs. Well-drained but moisture-retentive soil is a must for this prairie native.