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Golden Paintbrush

Golden Paintbrush

Scientific name: Castilleja levisecta

Status: Threatened

Critical Habitat: None

Listing: Golden paintbrush was listed as threatened, without critical habitat, on June 11, 1997. It was proposed for delisting on June 30, 2021.

  • Description and Life History

    Golden paintbrush is a perennial herb in the broomrape family (Orobanchaceae).  Plants have from 5-to-15 unbranched stems. Flowering stems may be erect or spreading. When spreading they give a bushy appearance or the appearance of being several plants, especially when in tall grass.  Plants grow up to 30 cm (12 inches) tall and are covered with soft, somewhat sticky hairs.  The showy bracts are bright golden yellow.  The lower leaves are linear and lance-like, the upper leaves are broader with 1 to 3 pairs of short lateral lobes near the leaf tip. The plant generally flowers from April to late June.

    Golden paintbrush is a short-lived perennial with individual plants living for 5 to 7 years. Plants may flower as early as February, and the basal, vegetative material can be observed most of the year, making it a prime choice for post-diapause Taylor’s checkerspot butterflies to feed upon when they emerge mid-winter.  Golden paintbrush reproduces exclusively by seed. The fruit is a capsule, which matures in July or August.  Seed is collected when the seed capsules mature and many plants senesce back to their basal leaves.  Some capsules may persist on the plants over the winter, but usually the seeds have dispersed by wind during the late summer or fall. Most seeds from golden paintbrush fall a short distance from the parent plant. The seeds are miniscule; they are light and could possibly be dispersed short distances by the wind, rainfall or carried by animals to other locations.


    Historically, golden paintbrush has been reported from more than 30 sites in the Puget Trough of Washington and British Columbia and as far south as the Willamette Valley of Oregon.  Many populations have been extirpated due to, residential and commercial development and agriculture.  Eleven populations are currently known to exist in Washington and British Columbia. More than half of these populations occur on Whidbey, San Juan and Lopez islands off the north coast of the Washington mainland. 


    Habitat for golden paintbrush is on open grasslands on glacial outwash prairies in the Puget Trough lowlands of Washington and British Columbia and it is found on alluvial soils in the Willamette Valley, Oregon. The species does not tolerate shade from nearby trees, shrubs or even tall nonnative grasses, therefore considerable management is devoted to maintaining a low structured status to the plant community. On uplands prairie in Washington the species can also be found on mounded prairies known as “mima mounds”.

    The species has been successfully reintroduced into the Willamette Valley after being absent since 1938. An assessment of historical sites in Oregon revealed that no plants were present in the valley (Kaye and Lawrence 2006), and that historical sites in Oregon were markedly different than existing locations from Washington. Approximately 20 new populations have been introduced into the upland prairie of the Willamette Valley, with some populations containing several thousand flowering plants.

    Golden paintbrush does best on sites that are frequently burned using prescribed fire; a three to five-year fire frequency appears to keep the species robust and may facilitate natural reproduction if bare soil is available or created at the time of prescribed fire and at the time of seed release.   Long term management of habitat for golden paintbrush will require close monitoring to sustain existing populations of the species.

    Reasons for Decline

    Threats to golden paintbrush include habitat modification from commercial, residential development and agriculture.

    Mature, flowering golden paintbrush is frequently eaten by deer, voles and rabbits.  To ensure that plants survive to maturity without being consumed by herbivores we cage individual plants or fence the paintbrush patch to protect the plants until seed can be collected. 

    Fire suppression and the resulting invasion of sites by nonnative plants is also a documented threat that has changed the vegetative composition and structural condition of sites in short time periods.  It is therefore important to frequently use prescribed fire as a management tool to reduce the cover of nonnative plants and to create conditions that support natural regeneration of the species.


    Some research has been conducted on the population biology, fire ecology, propagation and restoration of golden paintbrush. The results of these studies have been used to direct the management of the species at sites managed for upland prairies.  All of this research is critical to the future reintroduction, conservation and recovery of the species.  Reintroduction into historical habitat is the best hope for the species to recover in the prairies of Oregon and southwestern Washington. To this end, a reintroduction plan has been prepared and large reintroductions are being implemented throughout the historical range of the taxon.  Greenhouse trials and surveys of potential reintroduction sites in the Willamette Valley have recently been completed.  Seeds of this species have been banked at the Berry Botanic Garden in Portland, Oregon and the University of Washington Botanic Gardens.

    Thanks to the hard work of numerous private and public partners dedicated to prairie restoration in Washington and Oregon, at this time it is believed that the species is present at over 48 sites and numbers greater than 500,000 plants.

    Golden Paintbrush Hybridization Strategy and Guidance
    Click here for information on the hybridization strategy and guidance for golden paintbrush and harsh paintbrush

    References and Links

    Caplow, F. 2004. Reintroduction Plan for Golden Paintbrush (Castilleja levisecta). Washington Natural Heritage Program, Washington Department of Natural Resources. Prepared for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Western WA Fish and Wildlife Office. 44 pp. + appendices.

    U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2000. Recovery Plan for the Golden Paintbrush (Castilleja levisecta) U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Portland, Oregon. 51 pp.

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