The Indian Paintbrush

Annual Wildflowers from Texas to Wyoming

Copyright © ; all Rights Reserved; Author’s Google profile Posted December 13, 2012

A field of Indian paintbrushes; photo courtesy Kelly Smith


The legend of the Indian Paintbrush is immortalized in a book by Tomie de Paola. It sprouts from wildflower seed and the Lady Bird Wildflower Center has done extensive research on this perennial.

Although the Indian Paintbrush is the Wyoming state flower (adopted on January 31, 1917), it would be a mistake to assume it’s only native to that state. In fact, these flowers can be found throughout North America in their varieties.

Blooming in the springtime, their root system is slightly parasitic on other plants. The official name of one of the most common paintbrush flowers is Castilleja miniata (Common Red Paintbrush).

It should be noted that many other varieties exist—Castilleja parviflora (Small-flowered Paintbrush) for example. Up to one hundred and six unique varieties have been identified by location.

Other common names are Red Indian Paintbrush, Harsh Paintbrush, Cliff Paintbrush, and Small-flowered Paintbrush. This wildflower is in the Figwort or Orobanchaceae family, and depending on the variety and location, can be as small as a half inch tall to as high as three feet!

Paintbrush Locations

This plant is fairly rugged and can be found along the roadside, in fields, in the high mountains, and along the low coasts. Unlike the Texas bluebonnet, they don’t typically clump together tightly, but may be found in small groups of a half dozen or so.

One reason they are distributed this way is thought to be because of their means of propagation. Since they don’t provide any ’perching’ opportunities, they are only visited by hovering birds and insects.

Much of the information we have on the Indian paintbrush and other springtime germinating wildflower seeds is the result on research done by the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower CenterLady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

Indian Uses of the Paintbrush

Many Indians used the flowers in moderation as a condiment. However, they were careful not to consume the stem or green parts of the plant. The very high selenium content makes it highly toxic.

The Chippewa tribe took the plant use a step further. They used the paintbrush for medicinal purposes, as a rheumatism treatment. They also were said to have made a hair wash product of it, to make their hair bright and glossy.

Legend of the Indian Paintbrush

Of all the renditions of this story, it’s best brought to life in a book by Tomie de Paola (# ISBN-10: 0698113608; # ISBN-13: 978-0698113602).

The legend concerns Little Gopher, an Indian boy of the Plains tribe. Little Gopher wants to paint great pictures of his hunts and the world around him.

He does well, but not being satisfied with his results of the evening sky, he has a nocturnal dream-vision. It directs him to a place where many brushes of vibrant colors await him. Soon his masterpiece is completed.

In the morning he discovers that all his paint brushes have taken root. And that’s why we have all the varieties of this magnificent wildflower spread across the land.

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