Big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) leaves have three tiny lobes at the tips. Photo: K.McCutcheon.
Big sagebrush, state flower of Nevada, is more useful than you may realize. People of the local Washoe tribe called this plant “dabal”, and used the bark for baby diapers, menstrual pads, socks and mattresses (Price 1962). The Paiute called sagebrush “sawabe”, and used it medicinally, brewing the leaves into a tea for treatment of colds, fevers, sore eyes, and diarrhea. The seeds were cooked and eaten. Other parts of the plant were used to make shoes or sandals (Murphey 1959). Early settlers used sagebrush for firewood, and also to locate good farmland: sagebrush over a meter tall was seen as an indicator of deep, basic soils (Mozingo 1987).
Sagebrush roots go deep, allowing this shrub a high degree of drought tolerance. A main taproot of up to 12 feet long transports water from deep down near the water table, and a system of shallower roots quickly soak up water near the soil surface after a rainstorm. Sagebrush are not tolerant of floods or fires – you won’t often find sagebrush living close to the river’s flood zone, although they are common along higher banks and in upland areas. An average sagebrush may produce around 350,000 seeds per year (Mozingo 1987).
Sagebrush leaves contain protective chemical compounds that make the plant taste bad to livestock and humans, however, certain native species (such as sage grouse, antelope, and mule deer) seem to be more tolerant, and often feed on sagebrush during winter or severe weather. Sagebrush leaves are high in protein, carbohydrates, and fat (Tirmenstein 1999). In summer, sagebrush often develops velvety purple galls on its branches, which are caused by a midge (insect).
Mozingo, H. N. 1987. Shrubs of the Great Basin: A Natural History. Reno, NV: University of Nevada Press.
Murphey, E. V. 1959. Indian Uses of Native Plants. Fort Bragg, CA: Mendocino County Historical Society.
Price, J. 1962. Washo Economy (Nevada State Museum Anthropological Papers ed., Vol. 6). Carson City, NV: Nevada State Museum.
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/ [2015, January 5].
USDA. 2015. Artemisia tridentata. In: USDA Plants Database, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service. Available http://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=ARTR2 [2015, January 5].