Wildflower of the Week: Paintbrush

Coast Paintbrush (Castilleja affinis) in Garland Regional Park

Paintbrush, or Indian Paintbrush, is one of the most easily recognized wildflowers in California. It’s found pretty much everywhere and if you spend much time outdoors you probably know it when you see it. Yet determining the species (let alone subspecies) of a given plant can be challenging. While all paintbrush may look pretty much alike to the casual observer, botanists have recognized upwards of 200 individual species – and subspecies beyond counting.

The paintbrush closest to the coast in our area tends to be Castilleja latifolia, which isn’t properly called paintbrush at all, but instead goes by the common names Seaside Painted Cup or Monterey Painted Cup (there’s that old Seaside/Monterey rivalry again). In this case it’s growing on the South Shore of Pt. Lobos, where it just started blooming this week – earning its designation as Wildflower of the Week. The “Coast Paintbrush” depicted in the first picture, confusingly, tends to grow a little further inland.

A common paintbrush in Big Sur and the Santa Lucia mountains is the somewhat grayer and fuzzier Woolly Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja foliolosa). We found this one near Post Summit.

Further inland, other species become more common. This one, which is probably Castilleja applegatei, was growing east of the Salinas Valley in the Diablo Range.

One interesting thing about paintbrush is that the bright color doesn’t come from petals, but from modified leaves. The actual flowers, which can be found in among and extending beyond the leaves are much less colorful. As we found this bright paintbrush (Castilleja affinis?) blooming at the Indians, we’re thinking maybe it should be considered the true “Indian Paintbrush.”

Not every Castilleja is a paintbrush. Those with a color other than red or orange tend to go by other names. Owl’s Clover (Castilleja exserta) is a good example. Rather than being an actual clover, this common companion of Sky Lupine is really just an incognito Castilleja. These were blooming on Blue Rock Ridge.

Look for paintbrush pretty much anywhere that’s wild and relatively unspoiled. It blooms nearly all year round close to the coast (we saw it blooming last September on the Cerro) and, since it’s more drought tolerant than a lot of wildflowers, we’ve seen it blooming this year in places, like Arroyo Seco, where nothing else was up.

Click here to view a vast number of photos of a vast number of Castilleja species.

One Response to Wildflower of the Week: Paintbrush

  1. Thanks for this introduction to paintbrushes in California. Where I am, in central Texas, far and away the most common species is C. indivisa. It’s a spring wildflower, but I was amazed to find a little bit of it blooming this past December:


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