Sagebrush conjures up romantic notions: Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage, with cowboys, campfires, and rustlers (which probably were not all that romantic when people were actually dealing with them).
It also conjures up spiritual visions: smudging in Indian ceremonies, a purifier which has brought soul-health as well as physical health.
It’s a peculiarly Western American plant, as you can see by this map at the USDA. The USDA, in its wisdom, has included Alberta and British Columbia in its distribution map, but not Baja Norte, the northern part of Mexico, where sagebrush also reigns. Could this be the place where politics make science stupid? We may never know.
Sagebrush can be honestly confusing: since it’s commonly called “sage” (as in the Zane Grey title), many people confuse it with the salvias. To add to the muddle, there is an actual salvia sage native to the western USA (Salvia apiana) which is also used for smudging and has a somewhat similar clean-astringent scent. If you look carefully at the smudge stick, it’s easy to tell which is which: Salvia apiana (whte sage) has the big leaves shaped like garden sage, only paler. Sagebrush has a number small tri-tipped leaves.
There’s a final reason why sagebrush could be confused with sage: the color. Though sagebrush actually has more grey-white than most garden sage, it is the green most of us imagine when we hear “sage green”. A pale, luminescent green that lights up the plain with a swatch of unexpected light.
But if you look at sagebrush closely, it’s a bit like lavender or some other Mediterranean that’s gone unpruned too long: leggy and woody. The flowering stems, which come on in late summer or early fall, are almost grasslike, adding to the feathery luminescence. It’s one of those plants that’s good at illusions.
The Latin name Artemesia refers to Artemis, who was goddess of the woods and the hunt, a wild thing. Sagebrush certainly is wild; I’ve never seen it cultivated. Tridentata refers to the three teeth at the end of each small leaf.
Goats and sheep eat sagebrush as winter forage, and the plant was used medicinally by the Spanish Californians for rheumatism, colds, headaches, and indigestion.
Probably it’s the scent of sagebrush that suggested these cures. It’s certainly memorable, a scent that makes you feel suddenly healthy and alive: clean, almost smoky, yet fresh at the same time. If you’ve smelled it once, you never forget it.