A member of the distinctive Indian Paintbrush genus, Castilleja elegans has lobed stem leaves and a cluster of magenta to red flowers, and occurs in tundra and rocky sites primarily on the north side of the Alaska Range in Denali. This species graces many dry ridges along the Park Road and in the Kantishna Hills.
Several stems grow from one branching taproot in this species. The stems are dark brown-purplish, sparsely hairy at the ground, becoming long-wooly at the top. The lower leaves are alternately arranged, linear-lanceolate; the upper ones often with two narrow lobes from the middle.
The inflorescence is a dense cluster of flowers arranged in a spike. The bracts and sepals give the plant its color, ranging from cream-pink to dark red. The bractssubtending the flowers are ovate in outline or sometimes lobed. The flower is narrow and upward facing. The sepals are fused, with four lobes, the tube ca. 5 mm shorter than the petals. The corolla is made up of two lips: the innermost longer, containing the style and anthers, the lower three-lobed. Both petals are yellow greenish and inconspicuous compared to the colorful calyx and bracts. The fruit of elegant Indian paintbrush is a dry capsule, 6-10 mm, which splits along one seam to release many small seeds.
Species of the genus Castilleja are hemi-parasites: they produce their own sugars, but also form connections to the roots of other plants to steal nutrients and water. This is the only red-colored Indian Paintbrush in Denali.
Castilleja elegans is a semi-parasitic perennial species. This species flowers in mid to late summer.
Castilleja elegans is monoecious with bisexual flowers. Red flowered species of Castilleja are typically pollinated by hummingbirds (Duffield 1972). However, as there are few to no hummingbirds in central Alaska, some other pollination mechanism must be responsible. A study of eight species of Castilleja in Utah found that all species required some period of cold stratification before seeds would germinate (Meyer and Carlson 2004). All species of Castilleja are hemi-parasitic: they are photosynthetic, but also steal nutrients from nearby plants by tapping into their roots.
Elegant Indian paintbrush is an amphi-Beringian species, which occurs from Chukotka eastward to the Hudson Bay region. It is an arctic-alpine species, in Alaska growing on mountain ranges and the north slope. In Denali, Castilleja elegans occurs in the Kantishna Hills, and slopes on the northern edge of the Alaska Range. Additionally, a few localities for this species occur along the Yentna River on the south side of the Alaska Range.
This species is equally common on north and south facing slopes. The average slope is 19 degrees; this species frequency is highest on very steep slopes (above 28 degrees). In Denali, this species is primarily an alpine species, where three-quarters of its occurrences are above 1000 meters.