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Environmental Studies

Castilleja coccinea (Indian Paintbrush) Schrophulariaceae


The Indian paintbrush of the West was first seen by the earliest Spanish explorers and adventurers who penetrated that wild and unknown wilderness of sage and rocks and rattlesnakes in search of the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola.

Photo courtesy of Dr Thomas G Barnes, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Physical characteristics

Leaf | Stem: The spikey leaves are alternate, yellow to bright orange, and usually divided into 3 narrow, widely spread lobes. The slender, erect, and unbranched stem is hairy, with clustering light green root leaves. The stem can grow up to 2′ tall, but usually no more than 12″-20″ high.

Photo by Jerry Mercier

Flower | Seeds: The flowers are at the top of the plant in a dense spike which elongates as the season progresses. The 3-lobed, scarlet-tipped bracts that all but hide the small 2-lipped greenish-yellowish flowers and their protruding pistils. The showiness of the plant comes from the brightly-colored, leafy bract that grows under each flower. 

Life span: Spring-Summer.


Ecological characteristics


Bloom: May-–June.

Distribution range: In the sandy country of Illinois, the Indian Paintbrush thrives, but is not common. They are common in mesic, dry, and sandy prairies, usually in areas that have some seepage during the spring; found through tallgrass region from western Minnesota and eastern Kansas eastward.

Map Key: Green - Present in state. Light green - Present in county, native in state. Orange - Present historically, now extirpated. Brown - Not present in state.


Importance to the ecosystem

No definite examples of extreme importance to the ecosystem have been found for this species.

If you have any information regarding this, feel free to contact Kassandra Morfin at morfinkr@mx.lakeforest.edu.



Relationship with other species

Humans: The flowers of Indian paintbrush are edible, and were consumed in moderation by various Native American tribes as a condiment with other fresh greens. The Obijwe used a hairwash made from Indian paintbrush to make their hair glossy and full bodied, and as a treatment for rheumatism. The high selenium content of this plant has been cited as the reason for its effectiveness for these purposes. Nevada Indian tribes used the plant to treat sexually transmitted diseases and to enhance the immune system. This plant was also used as a secret love charm in food and as a poison, “to destroy your enemies.”

Pollinators: This Missouri native It is primarily pollinated by ruby-throated hummingbirds who can transfer the pollen long distances between typically small and scattered populations of this plant. 

Other interesting facts…

  •  Named after Domingo Castillejo, a Spanish botanist.
  •  The plant is also called the scarlet painted cup.

  •  The plant is parasitic in nature. Its roots will attach to and absorb some nutrients and water from the roots of certain other plants.



Voss, John and Eifert, Virginia S. Illinois Wild Flowers. Springfield, IL: Authority of the State of Illinois, 1951. Print.





Page drafted by Kassandra Morfin