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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Prairie Spotlight: Sagebrush

Wyoming residents tend to have a misconstrued conception of sagebrush: “The brown-green stuff that grows everywhere.” Many ranchers would like to reduce its abundance because it is poor livestock food; it competes with preferred grasses for water and nutrients. However, wildlife biologists recognize sagebrush as feed for deer, elk, and pronghorn antelope during the winter. Some view sagebrush as barren land, while others appreciate its unique aroma especially after a summer rain. [1] 

Artemisia tridentata: the name means
3-toothed, a feature of the leaves.
There are five major types of sagebrush in Wyoming: Artemisia cana (Silver sage), Artemisia tridentata (Big sagebrush), Artemisia frigida (Fringed sage), Artemisia nova (Black sage), and Artemisia pedatifida (Birdfoot sage). All of these can be found on the Berry Prairie. 

Artemisia peatifida: this sagebrush is restricted
to most of Wyoming, and only a small part
of south-central Montana.

Why Care about Sagebrush?

Sagebrush is interesting because it grows in places like Wyoming where there is little rain, winters are harsh, and high winds. It depends on the wind for pollination. Second, it provides critically important habitat for a number of wildlife, such as sage grouse, sage thrasher, sage sparrow, and pygmy rabbits.[2]  Third, sagebrush is interesting because the genus belongs to the family Asteraceae, the same family as the sunflower even though it does not have the pretty flowers as the sunflower does. 

Photo by Cody Bish
Finally, sagebrush is an important host plant for a favorite wildflower. It is often used as a host plant for Castilleja or Indian paintbrush. The roots of sagebrush display an opportunistic growth strategy. It produces a taproot that elongates into the ground to reach available soil moisture, and also a network of roots that spreads laterally, giving the Castilleja haustoria roots a network to connect with.

[1] Dennis H. knight Mountains and Plains. The Ecology of Wyoming Landscapes

[2] Pocket Guide to Sagebrush

Written by Jenna Ramunno, Biodiversity Institute

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