Recently a friend and I took a trip to the monastery on a cold gray March day. Without the sun’s glare I was struck by the myriad of greens and grays that dominated the landscape. When I first noticed that the sage I was looking at had new leaves I felt puzzled because I didn’t expect to be seeing new growth on three foot tall plants this early in the year, although new growth is present in wild plants that are huddled close to the ground. I had already glimpsed two flowers, a dandelion and a deep magenta heron’s bill elsewhere, both of which were practically hidden in between sun warmed stones.
Happily, I gathered some sprigs of the sweet pungent sage, and climbed back into the car with the fragrant camphor and other volatile oils wafting through the air. Looking around the steppe I noted that a sea of sagebrush stretched out in front of me until the shrubs met red willows that lined the bank of the river. This protected riparian area was completely surrounded by cliffs, and I wondered if that was why the sage had sprouted new leaves so early in the year.
When I looked up big sagebrush I discovered that it was classified as an evergreen shrub because it keeps some of its leaves all year round. With leaves remaining on the plant during the winter big sage can photosynthesize later in the year and earlier in the spring than many other plants. Sagebrush takes advantage of the long growing season photosynthesizing even when temperatures are close to freezing. This information answered my query as to why the plants seemed to be in an (early) active growth cycle.
The size of these plants indicated to me that this land was arable, suitable for cultivation, and indeed the monks had an extensive garden not far from the field of sage. This coarse, many – branched shrub has pale yellow flowers, and silvery gray leaves. A deep taproot coupled with laterally spreading roots near the surface allows sagebrush to gather water from both surface precipitation and from the water table several meters down. It prefers deep basic soils. This sage is very long lived once it makes it through the seedling stage. A hundred year old shrub is not uncommon. Big sages’ pale yellow flowers appear in the late summer or fall. Its fruits are seed –like. This plant also reproduces through sprouts that shoot up from the underground rhizome. These daughter plants have a much better chance of surviving because they are attached to the mother plant that has adequate moisture, no matter how dry the season. Of the two strategies for survival daughter sprouts have the edge. A seedling has to find its way alone and will die without enough moisture.
Sagebrush is not a desert plant but is a resident in areas that get 7 to 14 inches of rain a year. Big sage and other Artemisia species are dominant plants of the Great Basin covering some 422,000 square miles in eleven western and Canadian provinces. The shrubs are found from 4000 to 10,000 feet in elevation. Sagebrush ecosystems have the largest habitat range in the United States. Big sage often grows in areas like the cold desert shrub or in juniper and pinion pine woodlands. The perennial shrub (that often looks like a small tree) grows from 2 -7 feet tall. The young stems are smooth and silvery but as the plant matures the stems turn gray and the bark starts to grow in long strips. The plant provides food and habitat for a variety of animals like the sage grouse, pronghorn, birds, the pygmy rabbit and mule deer. It also creates habitat for many species of grasses and herbs. Besides providing shade and shelter from the wind, the long taproot of sagebrush draws water up from deep in the soil, some of which becomes available to these surrounding shallow rooted plants.
Damage to sagebrush plants by grazing herbivores results in the release of volatile chemicals that are used to signal a warning to nearby plants, so others can protect themselves by increasing the production of repellent chemical compounds. This plant to plant communication extends over long distances, and is probably not the only way these plants converse. It has been argued by some that the actual “brain” of the plant is in its underground root system where most exchanges take place (see Stephen Buhner’s work). What I find so fascinating is that sagebrush and many other plants appear to behave altruistically putting the lives of the whole community of plants before that of the individual.
Some Native peoples grind the seeds of big sage into flour but ordinarily the plant is considered toxic for human consumption because of its oils that are toxic to the liver and digestive systems. Many Indigenous peoples use big sage as a medicinal herb, most notably for smudging. Zuni use the plant vapors for body aches. Navajo use big sage to cure headaches. I collect a couple of different types of sages and use them to help with headaches or to clear a room of stale winter air. I also put sprigs in vases in the late fall.
As previously noted big sage is part of the extensive Artemisia family and has been associated with humans for a very long time. In every state in the U.S. some form of the plant can be found in most flower gardens and can easily be identified by its pungent odor (although the scent differs from one species to another), as well as its lovely blue gray foliage.
Above: a few sprigs of Big Sagebrush