The April sun rises on a landscape splashed with the colors of spring, and few wildflowers hold the metaphor better than Indian paintbrush. Known botanically as Castilleja, these low-growing blooms of orange, red, or occasionally yellow appear like blazing tufts of pigment across the full spectrum of habitats—from grasslands to coastal bluffs, deserts to vernal pools, lowland bogs to the High Sierra—a testament to nature’s art and design.
The bright colors of the paintbrush derive not from its flowers but from bracts, the leaf-like structures around the flowers, which grow shorter, wider, and more lobed toward the top, often with color highlights at the tips. The plant’s beauty above ground masks a deviousness below—Indian paintbrush is a partial parasite, unable to thrive alone in the soil. This clever freeloader takes water and nutrients from the roots of other plants via furtive finger-like projections of parasitic tissue called haustoria, which grow from the roots of the paintbrush and penetrate the roots of the host plant. Look for Indian paintbrush growing together with bunchgrass, chamise, sagebrush, and wild buckwheat, its favored hosts.
Here in the Bay Area, stands of purple owl’s clover (Castilleja exserta) rank among our showiest grassland wildflowers, and constitute a primary element for the survival of the federally threatened Bay checkerspot butterfly. In the coastal scrub, keep an eye out for Franciscan paintbrush (C. subinclusa subspecies franciscana) with its two-toned flower of crimson and gold, and the shaggier Wight’s paintbrush (C. wightii) with blossoms of solid yellow or red. We also enjoy the rare and endemic Tiburon paintbrush (C. affinis subspecies neglecta), whose yellow bracts can be spied on open serpentine slopes of Napa and Marin Counties, and nowhere else on earth.
A shape-shifting member of the snapdragon family, the genus Castilleja includes some 200 species in the western United States, with 35 occurring in California. They commonly recombine in polyploid forms, meaning with three or more sets of chromosomes (as opposed to two, the more typical number in sexual reproduction), rendering them highly variable in different populations. They also hybridize easily between species, a promiscuity that makes them extremely difficult to categorize.
The genus was named in the late 18th century for Domingo Castillejo (1744-1793), a Spanish botany professor, but the common name derives from the mythology of Plains Indians in the Oklahoma territories. One version of the story, told by author Tomie dePaola in his children’s book The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush, tells of an Indian boy whose small size prevented him from becoming a warrior, so instead he grew into a painter entrusted with the sacred duty of historian. Using pigments of crushed berries and earth, with animal hides for his canvases, he captured the defining events of his people so they would be remembered forever.
Despite his talents, the artist was unable to paint the sunset, whose complex colors eluded the dull earth tones of his paints. One night a spirit visited him in his sleep and told him to go look in the hills. Next evening, as the sun began its descent, he walked to the foothills and found a collection of paintbrushes in exactly the colors he needed. He used them to produce a perfect picture of the sunset, then left them where he found them, where they multiplied to cover the hills and valleys with those same vivid shades of red, orange, and gold.
Look for Castilleja at the Crissy Field dunes, the Steep Ravine Trail on Mount Tam, San Bruno Mountain’s Summit Trail, the Mitchell Canyon Trail of Mount Diablo, the Springs Trail at Henry Coe State Park, or numerous other destinations around the Bay Area. A stunning specimen by any name, Indian paintbrush helps compose the picture of spring in the minds of all who behold its fiery hues.