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The Sagebrush Sea

Sagebrush Country

Sagebrush Country

Most of my time on the eastside, I was camped on the edge of the sagebrush sea that stretches from the Sierras across the Great Basin to Utah. It was a good opportunity to get to know that plant community. I’ve seen it and driven through it and even planted the namesake plant, Big Sage aka Great Basin Sage (Artemisia tridentata), in several gardens including my own, but I hadn’t really camped or hiked or spent an extended amount of time in it. It’s an interesting plantscape. Flat for the most part, with almost no trees, and the soil is loose and sandy and not for any plant that needs to be well fed or water-fat. The sun is strong, even though the actual temperatures stayed moderate because of the altitude, and there was almost always wind, especially in the evenings because I was at the base of a mountain. There were monsoon rains a lot of the time I was out there, storm clouds building during the afternoon and then briefly dropping rain somewhere on the landscape, frequently with a double or triple rainbow somewhere. Rains were still T-shirt weather, and the high desert smelled amazing afterwards. Sagebrush is one of those smells that evokes an entire landscape.

Snowberry, Bitterbrush, Sagebrush

Snowberry, Bitterbrush, Sagebrush

Most of what you see of the sagebrush in the photo is actually its bloom stalks. Sagebrush is wind-pollinated, so it doesn’t need a big, showy flower and it doesn’t care about attracting pollinators. The foliage is beautiful enough to make up for the lack of flowers, though. We made a tea with it one night and seasoned potatoes with it on another, and it smells nice in campfires or as smudge sticks. I usually think of silver foliage as an accent or contrast for green foliage, but silver is the dominant color in sage country and it is the greens that act as compliments.

Blazing Star, Mentzelia

Blazing Star, Mentzelia

A few other plants — Blazing Star, Prickly Poppy, and Sulfur Buckwheat — provided the showy flowers. The spiny, weedy foliage of the blazing stars and prickly poppies would probably keep them out of most gardens, but their flowers are fantastic.

Blazing Star, Mentzelia

Blazing Star, Mentzelia

Prickly Poppy, Argemone

Prickly Poppy, Argemone

Prickly Poppy, Argemone

Prickly Poppy, Argemone

Sulfur Buckwheat, Eriogonum

Sulfur Buckwheat, Eriogonum umbellatum

Sage at Convict Lake

Sage at Convict Lake

“The Sagebrush Sea (scientifically known as “sagebrush steppe”) covers approximately 110 million acres of the American West, making it one of the most extensive landscapes in North America. The heart of the Sagebrush Sea is shaped by the Columbia River Basin, the Great Basin, the Wyoming Basin and the Colorado Plateau.” More info, including details about conservation efforts and some cool maps, can be found at SagebrushSea.org.

Sagebrush Sea, from SagebrushSea.org

Sagebrush Sea, from SagebrushSea.org

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7 Responses to “The Sagebrush Sea”

  1. September 19th, 2009 at 3:17 pm

    Jennifer AKA Keewee says:

    I have visited desert countryside like that, and found the plant, animal and insect life to be very interesting.There is also beauty in the landscape, especially as the sun moves across the sky,and the shadows on the ground change from hour to hour.

  2. September 19th, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    ryan says:

    You’re right. And I forgot to mention the sunrises and sunsets. We got some amazing ones.

  3. September 20th, 2009 at 2:52 pm

    Brad B says:

    I just flew across it on my way back from new york and was wondering if all those dots were sage. I guess you’ve answered my question.

  4. September 20th, 2009 at 6:00 pm

    ryan says:

    Glad to be of assistance.

  5. September 23rd, 2009 at 10:04 pm

    Gayle Madwin says:

    This is the first I’ve heard about blazing stars being spiny. I’ve read everything I could find on the Internet about them, but I’ve never seen one in person. Could you elaborate on the spininess? Where are the spines located? Are they present year-round?

  6. September 24th, 2009 at 8:17 am

    ryan says:

    The leaves are sawtoothed and pokey. I don’t know that they actually hurt to work around, the way some plants like Berberis do, but the leaves have that “don’t touch me” look. Prickly poppy is the more spiny one of the two.

  7. September 24th, 2009 at 7:29 pm

    lostlandscape(James) says:

    Your Convict Lake photo is amazing. The sage mixed with the bright green and gray-green shrubs is a great effect–and the backdrop doesn’t hurt! I’ve planted A. californica, mostly because it’s more local to these parts. But I think the Great Basin version is a lot more striking in the garden.