Artemisia tridentata

Since returning to Utah last September, I have been focusing on what I love about this state and why I love living here. 

This is one of those reasons:

I absolutely love Sagebrush. The way it smells after a rainfall, the way it twists and turns as it grows, and the way it fills the vast Great Basin and high mountain desert, adding to the expanse and personality of the West. It is wild and free - and drought tolerant. 

As we are having a very warm February in Utah (lovely for hiking, no allergies!), I am thinking to the growing season ahead and the potential lack of water this part of the world may face. It would do the Earth well if more of us fell in love with this native and incorporated it into our landscapes and gardens. Think how happy the water and wildlife would be! 

Here is a bit more information about this wonderful shrub for those who are curious. This information came from the USU website:

Driving through the Great Basin, you can often look out upon a sea of gray-green shrubs. This shrub of commanding presence is big sagebrush. This is a woody shrub with silvery three-lobed leaves that stay green all year.

There are several subspecies of big sagebrush. The most common are Wyoming big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata ssp. wyomingensis), mountain big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata ssp. vaseyana), and basin big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata ssp. tridentata). These subspecies are difficult to tell apart, but each has a habitat it finds most favorable. Basin big sagebrush grows in valley bottoms and lower foothill areas with relatively deep, fertile soils and more moisture. Wyoming big sagebrush is more common on hotter and drier sites with shallow, lower quality soils. Mountain big sagebrush tends to occur at higher elevations that are wetter and cooler.

Native Americans made a tea from big sagebrush leaves and used it as a tonic, an antiseptic, for treating colds, diarrhea, sore eyes, and to ward off ticks.

This shrub grows in communities with bunchgrasses throughout the Great Basin. Usually plants grow between 2 and 4 feet tall, but scientists have found shrubs taller than 10 feet in areas with deep soil and plenty of moisture. In late summer or early fall, sagebrush plants bloom with inconspicuous golden yellow flowers. Big sagebrush has a sharp odor, especially after rain. Early pioneers traveling along the Oregon Trail described the scent as a mixture of turpentine and camphor.

Plants must be tough to survive where summer is hot, little rain falls, and strong winds blow. Big sagebrush has many adaptations to fit this harsh environment. Their leaves are covered with tiny hairs that help prevent it from drying out in the heat and wind. Some leaves are shed in the summer when soil moisture becomes scarce, thereby reducing water requirements. At night, the taproot of sagebrush pulls moisture from deep in the soil and distributes it to shallow branching roots that grow near the surface. During the day, the shallow roots use this water to keep the shrub alive.

While the gnarled branches of big sagebrush may seem tough, it is easily killed by fire because it cannot resprout afterward. Occasional fire is the principal means of renewing old stands of big sagebrush.

One of the big reasons cheatgrass invasion is bad for the Great Basin is because with it and frequent fire, we are losing large stands of big sagebrush. Without these shrubs, animals are affected and ecosystem processes change.

Sage grouse rely heavily on big sagebrush. As much as 70 to 75 percent (higher in winter) of their diet is made up of its leaves and flower clusters. Antelope eat substantial amounts of big sagebrush throughout the year, and mule deer feed heavily on the plant during late fall and winter. Sharp-tailed grouse, jackrabbits, elk, and many species of small mammals eat big sagebrush sparingly at various times of the year.

Big sagebrush provides nesting cover for sage grouse, other upland game birds, and several species of sparrows. It also helps prevent erosion, protects animals against wind and rain, and provides shade. Big sagebrush communities serve as important winter ranges for wildlife throughout the Great Basin.