For most people, sagebrush, Artemisia, is inseparable from images of the West — hence the University of Nevada, Reno’s yearbook, Artemisia — and scenes from cowboy movies of gunslingers riding through the desert plants on their way to a gunfight in town, tumbleweeds rolling past. Sagebrush and its sister plant, bitterbrush, Purshia tridentata, are also widespread in Tahoe, comprising our main ground cover.

Sagebrush and bitterbrush are very different from one another, but I often find people mistaking them, which is understandable since they both have the tri, or three-lobed, leaves. Other than that, they are quite different. Big sagebrush, Artemisia tridentata — also spelled Artemesia after Artemis, the Greek goddess of the wild land — is the dominant shrub of the Great Basin and grows over thousands of square miles. Its ubiquitous nature coincides with it being a xerophytic plant, one adapted for growth under dry conditions. It covers the east and west slopes of the Sierra and its elevation ranges from 1,500 to 10,600 feet. The plant has short branches and woody trunks, and grows from 4 to 15 feet. Sagebrush’s mustard yellow flower is the state flower of Nevada. The flowers, also known as inflorescences (a cluster of flowers on a branch), bloom in fall and are a beloved food source for sage grouse — up to 75 percent of their diet — as well as antelope, mule deer, elk, jackrabbits, and other small mammals. Native Americans used sagebrush in sweat lodge and ritual purification ceremonies to clear the air of bad spirits, and also to make tea and cure headaches, stomachaches, and injuries.

Bitterbrush starts at a higher elevation, approximately 4,000 to 7,000 feet, and blooms in early summer with a small, bright yellow flower with five petals. Like sagebrush, it boasts leaves the shapes of narrow hands with tri-toothed tips, but bitterbrush leaves are green, thicker, and shorter compared to sagebrush’s larger and thinner silvery-gray leaves. Both plants have fine white hairs covering the leaves, which reflect sunlight and lower the surface temperature of the plants. The leaves and twigs are a favorite snack of mule deer, tule elk, bighorn sheep, and pronghorn antelope, thus the alternate name for bitterbrush — antelope bush. Bitterbrush seeds are often cached in shallow burrows by rodents and eaten by birds, squirrels, chipmunks, mice, and rats.

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The tridentatas might sound like a family who would place a horse head in your bed, or like a tango that gives you the odd desire to hold a rose in your mouth, but the tridentatas are simply part of the Tahoe landscape, three fingered bushes that bend gently in the summer breeze.

Do you have a question about our region’s natural world? Email mountainlife@moonshineink.com.

Author

  • Eve Quesnel

    Eve Quesnel has lived in Truckee for 35 years with her husband Bill, once-upon-a-time daughter Kim-now on her own-and many dogs through the years, currently a Border Collie-Aussi mix. Her favorite pastimes include walking in her neighborhood and nearby woods, hiking in the high Sierra, and reading and writing. Quesnel is now retired from teaching English at Sierra College in Truckee but continues to pursue several writing projects. She is intrigued by the natural world of which she explores and writes about for the column "Nature's Corner" in Moonshine Ink.

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