Plant of the Week

Castilleja septentrionalis range map.
Castilleja septentrionalis range map. USDA PLANTS Database.

Castilleja septentrionalis
Castilleja septentrionalis.  Photo by George Newman.

Castilleja septentrionalis
Castilleja septentrionalis. Photo by George Newman.

Castilleja septentrionalis
Castilleja septentrionalis. Photo by Christopher Mattrick.

Pale Painted Cup (Castilleja septentrionalis)

By Chris Mattrick, White Mountain National Forest Botanist

The pale painted cup or the Labrador Indian paintbrush (Castilleja septentrionalis) is a stunning member of the figwort family (Scrophulariaceae). A large number of western paintbrush species are related, but the only other species in the eastern U. S. is the Indian paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea). Indian paintbrush is declining throughout some of its range, but is easily separated by its scarlet inflorescence and a preference for lower elevation wet meadows and prairies.

Pale painted cup is restricted to high elevations and/or northern climates. Widely distributed in Canada, in the United States it is documented from only five northern states. In Minnesota and Michigan, it occurs in rock crevices, ledges, and openings in lakeshore forests, thin woods, and sandy banks. In Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont it is largely restricted to alpine habitats on Mount Mansfield in Vermont, the Presidential Range in New Hampshire and Mount Katahdin in Maine. Moisture and non-acidic soils appear critical to the establishment of populations of this species. In the New England portion of its range, the species is found along the banks of alpine brooks and the St. John River in Maine.

The genus Castilleja is named for Spanish botanist Domingo Castillejo by a fellow botanist who first discovered it in South America. The species name septentrionalis means northern. It is known by a variety of common names: pale painted cup, Labrador Indian paintbrush, and alpine paintbrush. Like many other members of the figwort family it is a semi-parasitic plant, depending on its ability to tap into surrounding species for the uptake of necessary nutrients and water. The species is often found in dense colonies, which may be related to the presence of a needed host plant in the vicinity.

The stems can reach a height of up to 50 centimeters with alternately arranged linear leaves. The flowering stem is hairy and when in bloom the each flower is supported by purple tinged bracts. The stunning beauty of the inflorescence stands out in sharp contrast to the green and gray background of the alpine habitats in New England and elicits many complimentary remarks from the passerby.

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Schultz’s Milk-vetch (Astragalus molybdenus var. schultziorum).
Schultz’s Milk-vetch (Astragalus molybdenus var. schultziorum)