Spanning a native range from northeast Asia through the Americas, Indian paintbrush (Castilleja sp., Orobanchaceae) is particularly common in western North America. Many of the approximately 200 species can be found here, and distinguishing between species can be difficult. Most look very similar, most are highly variable in appearance, and most hybridize easily.
Although it appears that Indian paintbrush has beautiful flowers, these colorful structures are actually modified leaves known as bracts. The flowers themselves are inconspicuous and pale, so the bracts help draw the attention of pollinators.
In spite of its beautiful appearance, Indian paintbrush has a somewhat darker side. These perennials perform their own photosynthesis, but they’re also partially parasitic on the roots of other plants. Although they don’t kill their host plants, they undoubtedly have a negative effect on their overall success.