Indian paintbrush flowers have an interesting structure. The corolla consists of five petals and is usually somewhat obscure. The two upper petals are fused into a beak-like hood, called a galea, that extends over the lower lip of three petals. The lower lip is often reduced to a bump. The stigma protrudes from the corolla and is visible atop the flower. Surrounding the corolla is a calyx of four brightly-colored sepals. The inflorescence supposedly resembles a crude paintbrush giving these flowers their common name.
Narrow-leaved Indian paintbrush (Castilleja linariifolia) is common on our property near Lookout CA (Modoc County) where these specimens were photographed. The inflorescence is a spikelike raceme (maturing from the bottom up) subtended by lobed bracts. The corolla is yellow-green with a lower lobe that is almost vestigial. The calyx is bright red. There are four stamens.
Narrow-leaved Indian paintbrush is a perennial that arises from a rootstock. The stems are simple or little-branched. The alternate, sessile (without stalks) leaves are sparse and linear with margins folded upward. With age the stems and leaves become purplish.
The brown seeds of narrow-leaved Indian paintbrush occur in a 2 chambered capsule.
Members of Castilleja were until recently classified in the Figwort Family. Recently they were placed in the Broomrape Family. Castilleja are semi-parasitic in that they have chlorophyll and photosynthesize, yet maintain a connection with the roots of other plants, presumably to obtain nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous. Narrow-leaved Indian paintbrush plants are often associated with sagebrush and perennial grasses. Because of this root association, Indian paintbrushes rarely survive transplanting.
The habitat of narrow-leaved Indian paintbrush is rocky slopes, dry plains, sagebrush scrub and pinyon/juniper scrub. Except for Washington State, this native plant is found in all Rocky Mountain states and all states to the west of the Rockies. It is the State Flower of Wyoming.
Narrow-leaved Indian paintbrush absorbs selenium. So although the flowers can be eaten in salads, it is dangerous to do so in areas where there are high amounts of selenium in the soil. Because of this tendency to accumulate selenium, narrow-leaved Indian paintbrush was utilized by Native Americans to treat rheumatism.
Domingo Castillejo (1744 – 1793), a Spanish botanist, is honored by the genus name. The species name means “with leaves like linaria (toadflax)”.
Other common names for C linariifolia are desert paintbrush, linear-leaved Indian paintbrush and Wyoming Indian paintbrush.