Castilleja septentrionalis (Northern Paintbrush)

Plant Info
Also known as: Northern Painted-cup, Labrador Indian Paintbrush, Sulpher Indian Paintbrush, Pale Indian Paintbrush, Pale Painted-cup
Family:Orobanchaceae (Broomrape)
Life cycle:perennial
  • State Endangered
Habitat:part shade, sun; rocky soil; rock crevices, ledges
Bloom season:June - August
Plant height:6 to 20 inches
Wetland Indicator Status:GP: FAC MW: none NCNE: FACU
MN county distribution (click map to enlarge):Minnesota county distribution map
National distribution (click map to enlarge):National distribution map

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Detailed Information

Flower: Flower shape: indistinct Flower shape: tubular Cluster type: spike

[photo of flowers] A dense spike at the tip of the stem, initially compact but elongating with age up to about 4 inches, with open flowers at the tip and fruit forming below. Flowers are tubular, pale yellow to greenish-yellow, about ¾ inch long, have a style that barely extends beyond the mouth of the tube and 4 somewhat shorter stamens. Each flower is wrapped in a broad bract that has 1 to 4 lobes or teeth and is pale yellow to greenish, lighter colored near the tip, sometimes tinged with purple. Bracts and flowers are both covered in short glandular hairs, the bracts also with longer, non-glandular hairs.

Leaves and stems: Leaf attachment: alternate Leaf type: simple

[photo of leaves] Leaves are alternate, lance-linear, 1 to 4 inches long, toothless, stalkless and mostly hairless except for a minute fringe of hairs around the edge. Stems are single or multiple from the base, 4-sided, branched or not, mostly hairless except near the flower spike, and mostly erect to ascending. Not all plants produce flowers.

Fruit: Fruit type: capsule/pod

Fruit is a capsule about ½ inch long containing 2 or more seeds.


Northern Paintbrush is one of the rarest plants in Minnesota, only known from 2 or 3 locations along the rocky north shore of Lake Superior. It is an arctic and alpine species, more common in eastern Canada into New England, as well as in the Rocky Mountains in the west, found in meadows, peatlands, open forest, and floodplains. According to the DNR, it was first discovered here in 1891 near Grand Portage and not seen again until 1999, just a few miles from the original site; it was listed as an Endangered species in 1996.

Castilleja species are hemiparasitic, meaning they obtain some nutrients from host plants, but also carry on photosynthesis so are not completely dependent on their hosts. It is not currently known what specific conditions are required for the Minnesota populations to survive. They sit on both state and private lands and, while protected from development, are still at risk primarily from recreational activities. The north shore may seem like hardy habitat, but is actually quite fragile and the rare plants that survive in its microhabitats are easily trampled to death.

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More photos

Photos by John Thayer taken in Cook County.


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