Plant Birthdays: Indian Paintbrush

Texas Indian paintbrush bud ~ Round Lake Cemetery, Gonzales County

In A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold writes of what he calls ‘plant-birthdays.’ He notes that:

During every week from April to September there are, on the average, ten wild plants coming into first bloom. In June as many as a dozen species may burst their buds on a single day. No man can heed all of these anniversaries; no man can ignore all of them…

The buds are bursting in Texas, and I’m doing my best to heed their arrival. To share my enjoyment of the season, I’ve decided to offer a short series of posts highlighting some of our local plant-birthdays. I hope you enjoy them, too.

Nearly everyone in Texas is familiar with Indian paintbrush (Castilleja indivisa), the dramatic reddish-orange companion to the bluebonnets that blanket our state’s hills and pastures during the spring. Other species can be found in different areas, but say ‘Indian paintbrush’ to a Texan, and this is what will come to mind.

What’s less well known is the fact that Castilleja indivisa sometimes produces a yellow or white bloom. Such flowers aren’t particularly common. A few years ago, I found one yellow paintbrush in a field next to the Deutschburg Community Center in Jackson County, but that unusual flower was both the first and the last such variation I’d seen.

Until this year.

Mature Indian paintbrush ~ Round Lake Cemetery, Gonzales County
A developing, whiter paintbrush along a Gonzales County Farm-to-Market road
A view of a nearly-pristine bloom on the Olmos Loop ~ Guadalupe County

When searching for wildflower treasure, cemeteries often reward exploration as surely as refuges and back roads. Some are large, well-publicized, and filled with lush floral displays. But even smaller cemeteries like Round Lake can yield unexpected finds. The key is to stop, and look.

A few of the white paintbrush are included in this photo. Do you see them?

Round Lake Cemetery


Comments always are welcome.


54 thoughts on “Plant Birthdays: Indian Paintbrush

  1. Gorgeous. Love your Indian Paintbrush. You’re the first person I’ve seen upload the white variety though. Its just as lovely.

    1. There are photos floating around, but if you don’t know the color variations exist, it would be easy to spot a white paintbrush in the distance and assume it’s something else. When I did an image search for them just now, I had to smile — many of the people who’d posted a photo mentioned how excited they were to find one. It’s a feeling I understand.

  2. As you say, Indian Paintbrush is perhaps emlematic of Texas wildflowers even for those of us who live far from that region. I can only imagine what a rich and varied habitat it must be, supporting a wide range of organisms. I fervently hope that Trump and his idiotic wall does not destroy much of it. We need an expansion of habitat not less of it.

    1. When I first learned how many species there are, I was quite surprised. Jeanie has two Castilleja species in her state, and one of those species, C. coccinea, is shown as present (though rare) in upstate New York.

      As for habitat expansion, I’ve been delighted to discover this year how many towns, cemeteries, ranchers, and others have dedicated themselves to the propagation of wildflowers. When I see a “Do NOT Mow!” sign, I can’t help smiling.

  3. As you’ve shown here, the “white” paintbrushes range in color from cream to a fairly pure white. I’ve already come across several this year. That’s understandable, given the many large colonies of paintbrushes I’ve seen in the past two weeks.

    Aldo Leopold lived mostly in colder climates than that of Texas. Down here his range of plant-birthdays needs to be extended back at least through March.

    1. Chris Helzer posted some photos of a toad on The Prairie Ecologist this morning, and mentioned that he was so excited to discover it, he took 270 photos. I don’t think I took that many photos of the white paintbrush, but I spent two or three hours at the various sites, thanks to my own excitement. After all — if twenty photos of red paintbrush are bad, it’s always possible to try again. But the white? It’s not so easy — even though you managed to go back and reshoot your doubled anemone seed head, and I managed to find some puccoon after the mowers rolled through.

      Thanks to his time in Arizona and New Mexico, I suppose Leopold understood expanded seasons, but it makes sense that his immersion in those colder climes would have shaped his writing. I was trying to remember this morning whether I’ve ever gone for even a week without seeing a wildflower, and I don’t think I have. Even after our hard freeze a year ago, I found some daisies in bloom at the Aransas refuge. Amazing.

  4. Now this is one I actually see HERE! Well, the red. I have never seen the white ones, though. They’re lovely — but those red really hit me. I didn’t realize those were perennials. I wonder if the garden varieties are a hybrid?

    1. I see that there are two species that commonly show up in your state. I suspect the one you’re seeing is Castilleja coccinea — also red, and quite lovely. There are a few details about encouraging its growth in the attached article.

      They’re a funny flower. They are perennial, but they’re unpredictable. Some years they’re everywhere, and other years we really have to pay attention to find them. Another interesting tidbit is that they’re what’s called a hemiparasite; they obtain some of their nutrients from other plants, via their root system, so even the plants around them help to determine when they’ll really put on a show.

    1. At this point in my life, I’ve seen a bee’s knee or two, and they really are cute. I wish we could hear phrases that like more often today. I’ve grown a bit weary of “awesome!” The flower’s really pretty, isn’t it? Hooray for nature: quite an artist in her own right.

  5. Another winner–both flower and post! I’m enjoying your wildflower posts, as well as many others as I cringe at the infestation of the bastard cabbage (Rapistrum rugosum) that is nearly taking over Austin roads. I’m glad there are still places where our natives thrive.

    1. When I was in and around Gonzales, that plant was everywhere. At the time, I thought it might be bastard cabbage, but I wasn’t certain. Now, your timely comment led me to take a look, and sure enough, that’s what it was. Is. I’ve never seen it so thick, although down here it’s not around at all. From Houston to Goliad to San Antonio it’s a different matter. I tried to get some photos of it early one morning, but the yellow-on-yellow-on-yellow was just too much, and I settled for a closeup of a stem, and some white poppies in a field of it. It’s aptly named.

    1. I wonder if your orange is this one? For the longest time I thought it was just a color variation of the ‘regular’ paintbrush, but I finally got tipped off to the fact that it’s a different species (Castilleja purpurea var. lindheimeri) and that it can come in purple and yellow, too. Since I found the orange one on the Willow City loop, in really rough, rocky terrain, it makes sense that it might enjoy your area, too.

  6. One curious thing about Indian Paint Brushes: with my eye problems, when red and green are involved, I have real difficulties in seeing the red Indian Paintbrushes in green grass.

    1. I’ve never thought about how that sort of vision difficulty could affect wildflower viewing. Usually, when people talk about red/green color blindness, they mention things like stop lights, but it makes perfect sense that red flowers in green grass could be a problem, too. It’s a good thing there are bluebonnets and sunflowers, too!

      1. Hi Linda,
        Maybe, then, for me, we should exchange traffic lights with bluebonnets and sunflowers. But seriously: I don’t have any problems with red and green separately, as long as it’s just that, a clear red and a clear green. But when colours have some green or red in them, then it gets difficult. I might call something turquoise-blue when Mary calls in turquoise-green. And, like I said, this particular difficulty in being able to see the paintbrushes in green grass. But luckily, all of that doesn’t affect me very much.
        Have a great Sunday,

        1. I like the thought of bluebonnets and sunflowers as traffic lights — although some re-education would be needed. As for color generally, it’s interesting how differently people describe them, even when they’re looking at the same thing at the same time. When it comes to flowers, some people will use ‘purple’ where I’d use ‘blue,’ and vice-versa. And I’ve learned to use identification guides that separate flowers according to color a little carefully. Sometimes, they’ll put a flower in the ‘yellow’ category when I’m convinced it belongs with the ‘red.’ And of course the variation in actual flower color can perplex, too. It’s fun trying to sort it all out.

    1. Of course you did. That’s because you’re reasonable people, who pay attention to the ditches and respond when you see that ‘certain something’ that demands further exploration. My biggest problem right now is that further exploration seems to demand even further exploration, but I’ve worn myself out with looking the past week or two. Now, it’s time to settle in, go to work, and process photos — before starting again.

  7. I never knew there were white varieties of Indian Paintbrush — golly, they’re gorgeous!! I’d have stopped to admire and photograph, too. Thank you for braving the pollen to bring them to us!

      1. I understand the theory, and I know several people who swear by it, but this year, my tongue-in-cheek question is, “Which local honey?” I’ve roamed from Houston to San Antonio to near Corpus Christi recently, and I suspect Houston honey wouldn’t do for south of San Antonio. I have a vision of a box in the back seat, filled with area-specific jars of honey.

        1. Well, where did you have the worst reaction? That’s where I would start. Unless you’re having trouble at home as well and then that would be the prime location. On the other hand, as “variety is the spice of life”, where could be the harm in collecting samples everywhere you go (and thus build immunity in advance of your travels; ). Dad used to have a warm glass of water with a spoon of honey and a shot of ACV (apple cider vinegar) to start off every morning. I like to add a little turmeric and cayenne to mine (reminiscent of a spicy lemonade; )

    1. We finally got some rain and wind overnight, so that might help a bit. I was down the coast, in Rockport, yesterday, and as I headed south, I stopped sneezing. On the way home, as soon as I hit that invisible line, I started again. It was as amusing as irritating.

      If you like white paintbrush, you’ll love the white bluebonnets. There have been a lot of special finds in the past week or two, but I’d put them near the top of the list.

  8. Wild flowers and cemeteries seem to go hand in hand. . Maybe the old gave stones add another dimension and of course the keepers of those old cemeteries are generally mindful of the importance of preserving the natural beauty. Cemeteries remind me of the rose rustlers who went out to hunt for the old heritage roses. The paint brush is such a nice addition to a field of blue bonnets especially along the highways in my area

    1. I talked with a fellow who has some responsibility for the Rockport cemetery last week. The place had a remarkable mix of flowers, and was just beautiful, but he said they get calls from residents who want to know why the place is being allowed to remain such a raggedy mess.

      He says they patiently explain that yes, it will be mowed, but no, it won’t be mowed until after the wildflowers have been allowed to seed, so that next year’s crop will be just as good. I’m sure someone has explained that the flowers are a tourist draw, too. After all, I made an eight hour round trip to see them, and I certainly wasn’t the only person roaming around with a camera.

      One of the most interesting movements in England is toward planting native wildflowers in cemeteries. There are groups dedicated to it, and it’s fascinating to read about it. Once I’m done with my own cemetery tour for the year, I might post about it.

      I’d forgotten about the rose rustlers. I know a couple of people who’ve been involved. They’re akin to the people who go out to land that’s going to be developed and dig up native plants to be moved elsewhere.

      1. It is interesting and yet depressing how some folks always want a perfect green and mowed landscape. If only they could understand.

        I love the idea of a post about the British cemeteries.

        I had no idea you were driving that far to get some of your pics. I am glad that you do because I get to see a few things in the hill country that I otherwise would not.

        1. I have some nice photos from a couple of cemeteries, and some farm-to-market-road flowers to post once I get them sorted. I’m always afraid I’m going to end up without any decent ones, so I take a bunch, and end up keeping only ten percent of them. Well, five percent, maybe! I’m really glad you’re enjoying them.

          Another interesting thing about cemeteries is who you “meet” there. I’ve visited the Fulton mansion in Fulton, and lo and behold, the Fulton family plot is in the Rockport cemetery. The mansion survived Hurricane Harvey fairly well, as I understand, and I was thinking it would be interesting to do a little research about that clan, too.

  9. The dead are usually willing to share their flowers. I used to pick my mother spring bouquets in the old, overgrown graveyard that was next to out house. Once, I tried to transplant a striking tiger lilly. It didn’t work and I confess to feeling a bit of guilt.Paintbrush is always a favorite! –Curt

    1. If there’s someone in a cemetery not willing to share his or her flowers, I suspect we’ll read about it somewhere — or at least have a Facebook posting go viral. I have visions of a hand reaching up from the ground to smack someone with a mower…

      I didn’t know until recently that some of the most desirable native grasses and flower aren’t really transplantable. Either their roots go too deep, or, like the paintbrush, they intertwine with the roots of other plants. It’s one reason native plant sales do so well — and why certain native milkweeds fetch such pretty prices for young plants. Speaking of: how are Peggy’s milkweeds doing?

      1. A hand reaching out of the grave— it certainly was a vision we had as children, especially at night if we got up the courage to walk/sometimes run through the Graveyard.
        I haven’t checked on Peggy’s milkweeds recently, Linda. I’ll have to do that. I wonder if the native plants sensitive nature isn’t one of the reasons foreign invaders have such an easy time taking over their territory? –Curt

        1. As I understand it, one of the primary reasons non-native plants can begin to take over is that natural limitations on their growth aren’t present: insects, fungi, molds, and so on. Another reason is that humans keep introducing them, over and over again — think English ivy or Japanese honeysuckle. It’s a terribly complicated issue that I’ve hardly begun to understand, but a good bottom line is to look for natives from our local areas for strong, healthy plants.I recently learned that a sunflower grown from Texas seed will do better in Texas than one of the same genus and species grown from Illinois seed. Who knew?

          1. Star thistle, my nemesis of the plant world, reportedly came over in the wool of sheep brought over by early sheep herders from Scotland. I read some time ago in the Sacramento Bee that it has a root structure that can reach far below most plants to obtain water and seeds that can be viable up to 100 years. It’s hard for other plants to compete and extremely difficult to eradicate. –Curt

            1. I just looked, and we have some of those star thistles here in Texas, too. They’re bad actors, for sure. I was struck by this: “When star thistle infestations are high, native species can experience drought conditions even in years with normal rainfall.” A possible six thousand seeds per plant is worth pondering, too, especially with a 95% germination rate.

            2. I’ve maintained a constant war against star thistle, Linda, since we had a lot on our property. Mainly, I pull it out, since I don’t like using poison. But there are occasions. If I ignore it for a season, like I had to last summer when I was backpacking, it quickly re-establishes itself. –Curt

    1. It’s a nice reminder that spectacular displays aren’t the whole story. Sometimes there are equal treasures in out-of-the-way spots, and even if there aren’t, it’s fun to explore where it’s not necessary to fight traffic, except for the occasional farm truck and four-wheeler.

  10. Yes, cemeteries can be good for plants of all kinds, not to mention interesting graves. We have a Farm-to-Market Road here, too! And as interesting as the white blooms are, I would still prefer the red ones.

    1. One of my favorite stories about cemetery discoveries involves Albert Lea, Minnesota. We had family there at one time, and would visit when we went north for vacations. Imagine my surprise to discover that Albert Lea’s son, Edward, is buried in the Galveston cemetery. Father and son were on opposite sides during the Civil War, and there’s quite a tale attached. And yes, the city is named after Albert, who was a topographer in Minnesota and Iowa, and surveyed the area.

      I agree: white Indian paintbrush for interest and quirk, but red for beauty. An entire field of the white wouldn’t be nearly so soul-stirring. As much as I love white flowers, I always enjoy them most when they’re combined with another color.

  11. Beautiful in either color. We have a relative, Castilleja coccinea aka Scartlet painted-cup, here in Massachusetts that I have yet to photograph. Yours are lovely.

    1. I was surprised to learn how far to the north and east your species grows. They are beautiful flowers, although I’ve not yet come close to being able to photograph the great spreads of them we had this year. Of course, that makes the occasional white one a perfect subject for me — no great spreads of them!

    1. Nature is quite a gardener herself, wouldn’t you say? She doesn’t even have to buy seeds at the store. She just tucks little gems in here and there, and waits to see if any of us too-busy humans will take notice!

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