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Sagebrush (Artemesia tridentata)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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{ 10 comments… add one }

  • bangchik September 9, 2009, 2:21 pm

    The plant does look like something that can be domesticated and can feature well as clumps dotting large space in garden… Cheers ~bangchik

  • Frances September 9, 2009, 4:39 pm

    Thanks Pomona for telling us about the real purple sage. When we lived in Fullerton, the hills behind our development were full of this plant. At the time I had no idea what it was, but loved the color, form and texture.
    Frances

  • Genevieve September 13, 2009, 8:41 am

    Thanks so much for the profile, Pomona. My partner loves Sagebrush and wishes for some in the garden, but I have never seen it for sale (I already have some of the lovely Salvia apiana for smudging!). Maybe now I am armed with the botanical name I’ll be able to order one from my local nursery.

  • ryan September 13, 2009, 9:19 am

    I was living in the sagebrush sea last month on the eastside. Great plant, one of my favorites. We made tea a couple times and we used it once to flavor potatoes. You’re totally right that it is one of the quitessential western plants. So nice right after a rain.
    I see it fairly often in Bay Area nurseries. It does well. I have a couple in my garden.

  • Helen at Toronto Gardens September 14, 2009, 5:31 am

    Up here, we’re more likely to think of something like “sagebrush” in that generic, romantic sense, blurry and imprecise. (I feel the same way about “tumbleweed” and will now go and look that one up.) Interesting that sagebrush is an artemesia, which has so many uses.

  • Pomona Belvedere September 14, 2009, 11:25 am

    I’m glad to hear that sagebrush can be domesticated. When I think about its range, it seems that it can tolerate a lot of climates and water tables.

    I’m still unclear on what plant tumbleweed is, though I remember seeing it as a child (in its tumbling form).

  • Steve September 14, 2009, 11:10 pm

    Tumbleweed is a hardened, dried version of Russian Thistle, at least in Reno, anyway. It is about as appealing as eating nails, up close. I recall telling some dude I was riding in a truck with how :romantic” I felt Tumbleweed was, having grown up seeing it in movies only. He laughed like I was crazy. “Yeah, let’s get up close to it!” Ugh, nasty.

    Pomona, you are the recipient of attention from my blog. I named you as a favored blogger in one of those MeMe things. I got tagged and so I felt obligated, since he asked so nice. I think you have done one, as I recall, yet I still want to acknowledge you. You can drop by and collect the spoils of all this any time.

  • Renata June 19, 2010, 2:17 pm

    Does anyone know the name of the wild sage which grows on the North Dakota Prairie. The closest photo I’ve found is of Artemesia ludovisiana.

  • Pomona Belvedere June 19, 2010, 10:13 pm

    What about checking with a (or the) land-grant North Dakota state university? They’d likely have some kind of databank on local plants, or know someone who does. If there’s a state or federal park in the region, they might know, too.

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