Genetic research over the past decades has shown that Castilleja belongs in the Broomrape Family (Orobanchaceae), not in the Snapdragon Family (Scrophulariaceae).

     There are, according to Intermountain Flora, about 200 species of Castilleja (Paintbrush); most grow in western North America, several in eastern North America and Asia, and about fifteen in Central and South America. 

    Castilleja comes in many colors and often these colors represent distinct species.  But Paintbrush hybridizes often and therefore precise species identification on the basis of color can be difficult.

    The attractive "flowers" that we admire, are actually leaf-like parts, the bracts and sepals.  The flower petals themselves are fused in a long, narrow tube that is often greenish-yellow and tipped in the same color as the showy bracts and sepals.  The reproductive parts (visible in several pictures below) protrude from the tube.      

    Some species of Paintbrush grow singly, others scattered, others in large, very attractive patches, and others in all three manners.     

    Paintbrush is hemiparasitic (partially parasitic), i.e.,  if Paintbrush roots encounter roots of other plants they will penetrate these roots for nourishment.   This at least partially explains why several species of Castilleja, especially Castilleja chromosa, commonly begin growing under taller plants such as Sagebrush.  Perhaps they also profit from the shade.

     Paintbrush of the same species may consistently or inconsistently have hairy or smooth, sticky or not sticky stems; lower leaves may be noticeably red and three-veined or not;  bracts may, on their outside top edges, be deeply or shallowly cut into narrow or wider division or not cut at all.  As Intermountain Flora states it: "The species of Castilleja are often difficult to distinguish because of overlapping variation in nearly every character."   

     Despite these identification difficulties, one can, with patience and practice, learn the various Castilleja species pictured on this web site.   With little effort at all, one quickly learns to appreciate their beauty.

     The genus name, "Castilleja", honors Domingo Castillejo (1744-1793), Spanish botanist and Professor of Botany in Cadiz, Spain.  In the late 1770s Jose Celestino Mutis (who was born in Cadiz, Spain but spent most of his life in Columbia) named a new Columbian genus "Castilleja" to honor his countryman.  He sent the new species and name to Linnaeus' son who published the information in Supplementum Plantarum in 1781.  (More biographical information about Castillejo.)

Click for more Castilleja occidentalis and Castilleja septentrionalis.

Castilleja occidentalis

Castilleja occidentalis (Western Yellow Paintbrush)
Orobanchaceae (Broomrape Family)

Alpine. Tundra, meadows. Summer.
Above: U.S. Basin Road, August 4, 2015.
Left: Lizard Head Trail, July 2, 2004.

Castilleja occidentalis is very similar to its taller cousin, Castilleja septentrionalis.  Several factors help to distinguish between them: C. occidentalis grows on tundra, is quite short (to about eight inches tall), is a very pale yellow, and leaves and bracts are lanceolate.  C. septentrionalis grows in subalpine meadows to about fifteen inches, is a lemon yellow, and has linear lanceolate to more broadly lanceolate leaves and bracts.  Overall, though, the plants are so similar that Intermountain Flora states that "Castilleja occidentalis often appears to be a dwarfed alpine form of the taller subalpine C. septentrionalis." These two plants and Castilleja rhexiifolia are so similar that future research may indicate that they are all the same species or varieties of one species.

John Torrey named this species in 1827 from a specimen collected by Edwin James, probably on Pikes Peak in 1820.  "Occidentalis" is Latin for "western".

Castilleja occidentalis (Western Yellow Paintbrush) 
Orobanchaceae (Broomrape Family)

Alpine. Tundra, meadows. Summer.
Lizard Head Trail, August 18, 2005.

Castilleja septentrionalis

Castilleja septentrionalis. Synonym: Castilleja sulphurea. (Northern Yellow Paintbrush)
Orobanchaceae (Broomrape Family)

Subalpine, alpine. Meadows. Summer.
Calico Trail, July 14, 2004.

This delicately colored paintbrush ranges from a light yellow to yellow/white.  The plant in the photograph is just beginning to show color in its bracts.  The plant will grow another two to six inches tall.  C. septentrionalis is taller (growing to 15 inches) than its alpine cousin Castilleja occidentalis (growing to 8 inches).  C. septentrionalis hybridizes with the gorgeous iridescent Rose Paintbrush, C. rhexiifolia, producing beautiful variants of rose-pink/lavender/yellow paintbrush. Stanley Welsh, Utah flora expert, places Castilleja sulphurea (C. septentrionalis) as a variety of Castilleja rhexiifolia.

Per Axel Rydberg named this species in 1900 from a specimen collected by Rydberg and Bessey in Yellowstone National Park in 1897.

Castilleja septentrionalis

Castilleja septentrionalis. Synonym: Castilleja sulphurea. (Northern Yellow Paintbrush)
Orobanchaceae (Broomrape Family)

Subalpine, alpine. Meadows. Summer.
Kilpacker Trail, August 29, 2005.

Click for more Castilleja occidentalis and Castilleja septentrionalis.

Range map © John Kartesz,
Floristic Synthesis of North America

State Color Key

Species present in state and native
Species present in state and exotic
Species not present in state

County Color Key

Species present and not rare
Species present and rare
Species extirpated (historic)
Species extinct
Species noxious
Species exotic and present
Native species, but adventive in state
Questionable presence

Range map for  Castilleja occidentalis

Range map for Castilleja septentrionalis