Antelope bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata) in bloom. Photo: K.Fitzgerald.
- A common upland desert shrub
- Leaves: Small (1/2” – 1” long), dark green, three-lobed, edges curled under.
- Flowers: pale yellow, 5 petals (April – May)
- Fruit: Small, leathery.
Antelope bitterbrush, a member of the Rose family (Rosaceae), blossoms with sweet-smelling yellow flowers during April and May. Along the Truckee River, look for this shrub in upland areas, away from the water’s edge. Bitterbrush survive under dry conditions by sending down a long taproot of up to 18 feet deep (Zlatnik 1999).
Though the flowers smell sweet, the leaves of bitterbrush taste bitter to the human palate (hence the name). Livestock and wildlife, however, seem to love the stuff; the leaves are high in crude protein and fat, and bitterbrush is a preferred food item of antelope, mule deer, sheep and cattle. Rodents and ants collect and cache the seeds (Mozingo 1987).
The Paiute called this plant hunabe, and used it to treat smallpox, or to induce vomiting in cases of poisoning. A violet dye was made from the cooked seed-coats. Bitterbrush could also be burned with juniper and a plant called parosela to keep away the devil during times of epidemic (Murphey 1958).
References & Links
Mozingo, Hugh. 1987. Shrubs of the Great Basin: A Natural History. Reno, NV: University of Nevada Press.
Murphey, Edith Allen. 1958. Indian Uses of Native Plants. Glenwood, IL: Meyerbooks.
Zlatnik, Elena. 1999. Purshia 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/ [2016, April 22].