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Home>Plant Species>Native Species>Big sagebrush

Drawing of big sagebrush Big sagebrush
Artemisia tridentata

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Native Americans used sagebrush to ward off ticks!

What is big sagebrush
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. picture of three-tipped sagebrush leaves Wyoming big sagebrush and basin big sagebrush sites are where cheatgrass and associated weeds are most problematic.

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.

What are its characteristics?
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...though that is little help to most of us today. Sagebrush plant

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.

What’s its value to the Great Basin?
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.

Drawing of a male sagegrouseSage 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.

What is its restoration potential?
Big sagebrush is particularly adapted to dry sites where other shrubs are difficult to establish. It can be seeded directly or transplanted as seedlings. Success is variable and dependent on environmental conditions. The critical factors to overcome are seedling competition with cheatgrass and other weeds, and limiting fire long enough to allow big sagebrush to produce seed.

Images:
-Drawing: USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. Illustrated flora of the northern states and Canada. Vol. 3: 530.
-Drawing on click: Michael B. Piep © 2006.
-Leaves: Al Schneider @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database
-Plant: Southwest Regional Gap Analysis Project. Field site database. (http://earth.gis.usu.edu/swgap/trainingsites.html, 26 September 2006).
-Sagegrouse: Sagebrush Clips © 2005 Zackery Zdinak.

Text references:
-Howard, Janet L. 1999. Artemisia tridentata ssp. wyomingensis. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: (http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/, 26 September 2006).
-Tirmenstein, D. 1999. Artemisia tridentata spp. tridentata. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: (http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/, 26 September 2006).

-USDA, NRCS. 2006. The PLANTS Database (http://plants.usda.gov, 26 September 2006). National Plant Data Center, Baton Rouge, LA 70874-4490 USA.
-Utah State University, Extension. 2006. Range Plants of Utah website (http://extension.usu.edu/rangeplants/index.htm, 26 September 2006).