Artemisia tridentata subsp. tridentata

Another entry from Tamara Bonnemaison today, who writes:

This Artemisia tridentata subsp. tridentata, or basin big sagebrush, was photographed by Cliff Hutson (aka The Marmot@Flickr) at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont, California. I have taken many washed out, grey photos of fields of Artemisia, and thought Cliff did a particularly good job of highlighting the beauty of this plant against a dark backdrop. Thank you Cliff!

Artemisia tridentata, or big sagebrush, is a ubiquitous species that dominates landscapes of the Intermountain West of North America. Anyone who lives in this area likely has some kind of affinity with big sagebrush; I grew up in the South Okanagan of British Columbia, and can still close my eyes and remember the intense smell of sage and wet dust after a summer rain. Once, a close friend who invited her family over for Thanksgiving dinner found that the turkey was inedible. She later learned that the big sagebrush she had rubbed all over it was not the same type of sage called for by her recipe. Artemisia tridentata has the ability to elicit a personal and often visceral response from people, even those who would usually not give plants a second thought.

Artemisia tridentata subsp. tridentata is the most widespread of the 4 or 5 recognized subspecies of big sagebrush. The prolific Thomas Nuttall first described Artemisia tridentata in 1841, following collection of an Oregonian specimen obtained during the Wyeth Expedition of 1834-1837. Big sagebrush is a species of importance to many aboriginal peoples of North America, and is called kéwku by the Secwepemc people and ʔa•knuqǂuq̓unaʔqa by the Ktunaxa. The links above include sound-clips of the correct pronunciation for these names.

Big sagebrush is a pale grey evergreen shrub that reaches 0.5 to 3 meters in height. One property that maximizes its ability to access groundwater is a combination of a deep tap root and extensive fibrous root network. Also contributing to its tolerance of dry conditions, its small, silver-haired leaves ensure a minimum of moisture is lost in the hot arid climate favoured by the species. Artemisia tridentata improves conditions for surrounding plants, as the taproot brings water closer to the surface, and the above-ground parts of the plant create shade for grasses and herbs. Small herbaceous plants growing under a big sagebrush are often taller and denser than plants growing in the open. Big sagebrush is also of benefit to many animal species, such as the sage grouse and mule deer, and is host to many gall-forming insects, including Rhopalomyia medusa, which was featured in a previous BPotD entry.

Hugh Nelson Mozingo covers Artemisia tridentata extensively in his book, Shrubs of the Great Basin: a Natural History. In his chapter dedicated to big sagebrush, Mozingo puzzles over the disdain that cattle have for this species, despite the high nutrient value of its leaves (much higher than alfalfa, Medicago sativa). The author hypothesizes that cattle dislike the flavour of a group of volatile compounds found within the big sagebrush’s leaves and that wild deer, who browse extensively on the species, compensate by “belching” the compounds as they chew. The inability (or at least unwillingness) of cattle to consume sagebrush has dramatically changed the Intermountain West landscape. In the past, bunchgrasses and forbs were much more common, but cattle have selectively consumed those plant types, and have left near monocultures of big sagebrush in their wake.

Artemisia tridentata subsp. tridentata

18 responses to “Artemisia tridentata subsp. tridentata”

  1. Linda Stitt

    illicit – I believe you mean elicit???

  2. Daniel Mosquin

    Oops, sorry, that one snuck by the editor (me). Fixed.

  3. susan

    Ahhhhhh, thank you for writing about big sage, one of my favorite plants. I used to bring home a baby sage plant every time I’d go out digging for lomatium canbyi, and then ceremoniously plant it in my yard. That went on for about eight or nine years, but now, they are reproducing themselves and I am in a terrible dilemma of…thinning them? Oh no!

  4. Cliff Hutson

    Thank you for the compliment and your very informative article.

  5. Elaine

    we have a lot of sage here in our area. Big sage being just one of the species. I love the smell of sage. when walking I will get some leaves and rub them on me like perfume. of course I take some home to scent my house up nice.

  6. Jane (me)/ MulchMaid

    A shining picture. I love sagebrush and this one just went on my “must have” list.

  7. Sue Webster

    The turkey must have been awful, if the flavor of sagebrush is anything like the Artemisia in my garden. As I read the article I was thinking that ‘sage’ was a misnomer.

  8. Sheila Williams

    Hmm, where are the ‘tridents’ I’ve never seen
    ‘tridentata’ without the three ‘dents’ on the top of the leaf margin.
    Still a stunning photo and brings back many memories of walking through sage covered hills and trails in Kamloops.

  9. Ron B

    No comment about the attempted placement in Seriphidium?

  10. Robin Day

    Apparently camels like the Sage Brush and other aromatic plants of the central and south west. They were native to this landscape in the past.

  11. Tamara Bonnemaison

    Very observant, Sheila. I didn’t even notice the lack of ‘dents’ on the uncharacteristically round leaves. I know I’ve seen variation in the leaves before, but can’t recall a specimen that had no tridents at all…

  12. Cliff Hutson

    Re: Tridents
    The leaves are, as described in Jepson eFlora (the standard down here) – “Generally wedge-shaped, generally (0)3(5)-toothed or lobed at tip”. Aye, there is the rub. As you say the appellation “tridentata” means three-toothed, but on some plants the leaves have no teeth at all. Some may have little lobes that are more bumps than teeth. Another may have teeth that are fang-like in appearance.
    I have photographed it all three ways. But, this image is the most dramatic as I was able to expose for the the lighting on the sage, thereby darkening the background.

  13. Eric Simpson

    Be careful not to throw around “sage” and “sagebrush” as if they are interchangeable…they’re not: sagebrush = Artemisia; sage = Salvia.

  14. Steve Carwile

    Though Artemisia Tilesii makes a nice substitute for sage in pasta sauces in the far northwest.

  15. Daniel Mosquin

    Ron, it looks like Seriphidium wouldn’t apply to North American species even if it does become accepted down the line (and, at the moment, it does not look like it). But I don’t know if I’m looking at the latest information.

  16. Cliff Hutson

    You are correct. I could blame “auto correct”, but the fault lies within myself for not proofreading.

  17. Richard Old

    The wood is exceptionally beautiful, though seldom used. I have posted a couple of images at:

  18. Daniel Mosquin

    Stu G. of Bend, Oregon, sent along the following comment:
    “Regarding the leaves of sagebrush, Rosentreter (2004) notes:
    ‘There are three types of leaves on most sagebrush species. The “persistant” overwintering leaf is the representative shape and used in keys. The “ephemeral” leaves are larger, irregularly lobed, and are produced in the spring and lost in the summer. They should be ignored. The third type is on the flowering stalk. These are often entire and lack the typical lobes and shape of the persistant leaves.'”

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