Indian Paintbrush

Castilleia spp. – Indian Paintbrush


Indian PaintbrushCastilleja spp.

Identification: There are at least 6 species of Indian Paintbrush found in the area and it is very hard to tell them apart. Indian Paintbrush are perennial, biennial or annual herbs 15 – 60 cm high with alternate leaves. The flowers are borne in dense bracted spikes. The flowers are insignificant compared to the bracts which are brightly coloured red, yellow, pinkish, and sometimes white, depending on the species. In Glacier National Park there is a beautiful pink/violet variety. The leaves are usually cleft but often entire, close to lanceolate.

Distribution & Habitat: Various species of Indian paintbrush are found throughout the Rocky Mountain region in wooded or open slopes. Some, like C. miniata, prefer well drained south-facing slopes. Indian paintbrush is semi-parasitic. It can produce its own food but when times are rough it will parasitize other plant roots for nutrients.

Preparation & Uses: The flowers of Indian paintbrush can be eaten, and are tender and tasty. As a special treat, pull out the long white corolla tube and eat the sweet nectar at the bottom. Indian paintbrush tends to absorb selenium from the soil. Care should therefore be taken not to eat too much of it. In Alberta there is very little selenium in the soil, so there is no need to worry. In Colorado the level of selenium is very high and cases of toxicity related to this plant have been recorded.

There is a beautiful story about the origin of Indian paintbrush in Anora Brown s Old Man s Garden which she has taken from Mabel Burkholder’s book “Before the White Man Came”.

Once upon a time, a Blackfoot maiden fell in love with a wounded prisoner she was attending. The maiden realised that the tribe was only nursing its captive in order to torture him later. She planned an escape of the prisoner, accompanying him for fear of the punishment for such a deed. After some time in her lover’s camp she grew homesick for a glimpse of her old camp. She finally went to the site of her old camp, hid in the nearby bushes, and overheard two young braves discussing what would happen to the maiden who betrayed them, if only they could find her. Knowing she could never return, but nonetheless longing to return, she took a piece of bark and drew a picture of the camp upon it with her own blood, gashing her leg and painting with a stick. After drawing the picture, the maiden threw the stick away and returned to her lover’s camp. Where the stick landed, a little plant grew with a brush-like end, dyed with the blood of this girl, which became the first Indian Paintbrush.

The Chippewa Indians called it “Grandmother’s Hair” and used it for women’s diseases and rheumatism (this might be due to the selenium content). The Menomini used it as a love charm. The paintbrush was macerated in grease by Indians and used as a hair oil to invigorate the hair and make it glossy.

Small amounts of C. linariafolia root were decocted and used by the Nevada Indians as a remedy against venereal disease.