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Sagebrush Plant Information: Growing Facts And Uses For Sagebrush Plants

Sagebrush Plant Information: Growing Facts And Uses For Sagebrush Plants


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By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist

Sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) is a common sight along roadsides and in open fields in parts of the Northern Hemisphere. The plant is characteristic with its grayish green, needle-like leaves and spicy, yet acrid, smell. During the heat of the day, the scent is a recognizable fragrance in desert and scrublands. Growing sagebrush plants in the home landscape provides a natural look for the open field or pasture.

What is Sagebrush?

While familiar to most people, there are wonderful attributes to this plant. What is sagebrush and what are uses for sagebrush? This amazingly adaptive plant is tough enough to thrive in inhospitable terrain.

It has fine hairs on the leaves that help prevent moisture loss and produces a deep taproot that dredges moisture from nearly subterranean deposits of moisture under the earth. This plant is a member of the family Artemisia, or wormwood, of which there are varieties across the globe.

Artemisia is a genus of plants with pronounced medicinal abilities. Sagebrush plants are no exception and teas were made from the bush and used for the healthful properties.

Additional Sagebrush Plant Information

Sagebrush leaves can be identified by their grayish wooly appearance. They are about an inch long and end in a three-pronged set of “teeth.” This characteristic is important sagebrush plant information and sets them apart from other species of Artemisia.

The young bark is gray and covered in fine hairs while older growth is dressed in shredded bark that falls off easily. Most plants do not grow taller than 4 feet (1 m.) but occasionally they have been found 10 feet (3 m.) tall in their native habitat. The shorter size is more likely when growing sagebrush plants in the home landscape.

Uses for Sagebrush

In addition to the medicinal uses for sagebrush, it is an important habitat for native birds, small rodents and reptiles. The plant was used as building material for baskets and rope, and the wood was fuel for early Native American people.

It also has importance as a spiritual and ritual aromatic plant. The smoke is thought to have cleansing properties by those with belief in spirits.

As a poultice, it clears lungs and eases aches and pains. It was once chewed for its ability to soothe stomach problems and bowel issues. Another of the uses for sagebrush included lining cloth with the leaves of the plant as a diaper.

How to Care for a Sagebrush Plant

Sagebrush is a member of a hardy and adaptive genus that thrives where moisture and nutrients are low. They can survive ferocious winds and extreme periods of drought. As such, the worst thing you can do to sagebrush is overwater it. If you give the plant supplemental water in spring, it will bloom. There is no need to water after the plant has been established.

Most pests and insects are repelled naturally by the plant’s strong taste and odor.

Plant the bush in well-drained soil with plenty of sand or gritty material mixed into a depth of at least 8 inches (20 cm.). Potted plants should grow in a mixture of half sand and half perlite. This provides the dry conditions even in a container that the plants need.

Pruning to remove dead wood or errant growth should be done in late winter.

Try a sagebrush plant for part of your xeriscape garden, or as an anchoring plant for unused and arid zones of the landscape.

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How to Transplant Sagebrush

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If you've grown tired of constantly watering your plant beds, wasting your valuable time and increasing your water bills, consider replacing high-maintenance plants with native plant species that require little to no supplemental water. Sagebrush (Artemisia spp.), a small shrub native to the dry and coastal regions of the West, works well in xeriscape gardens because it survives on little water. Common sagebrush species feature silver-gray foliage and include California sagebrush (A. californica) and big sagebrush (A. tridentata). You can transplant container-grown nursery seedlings or dig up self-sown seedlings from wild plants or existing shrubs in the landscape.

Select a planting site for the transplant that receives full sun and with well-drained soil. Wait until spring to transplant sagebrush, when soil is still moist and the temperature is relatively cool.

Spray the site with an herbicide containing glyphosate as the active ingredient. Although this step is not required, eliminating plant competition with herbicide application improves the success rate of sagebrush transplants.

Dig up sagebrush seedlings from around the base of a wild or cultivated mature sagebrush plant dig a wide perimeter around the seedling to avoid damaging the roots. Choose plants with 13-inch tops or taller and roots between 6 and 12 inches long for the best transplanting success.

Wrap bareroot sagebrush transplants with a wet paper towel to prevent the roots from drying out before planting, which could result in plant death. If the soil ball remains intact around the roots, place it in a container and mist the soil to keep the roots moist.

Dig a hole for the transplants twice as wide as the spread of the roots and as deep as the vertical roots. If transplanting a container-grown sagebrush from a nursery, dig the hole as deep as the original container.

Mix the native soil with organic soil amendments, such as finished compost, straw, grass clippings and leaves to improve soil structure and increase drainage, especially in clay soils. Although sagebrush is fairly adaptable to both clay and sandy soils, they perform poorly in wet soil and benefit from amendments to improve drainage.

Remove the wet paper towels from around the bareroot transplants or remove nursery plants from the container, leaving the soil ball intact.

Set the transplants inside the hole with the roots vertical in the soil, avoiding horizontal placement that restricts root growth.

Fill the hole with the amended native soil up to the original planting depth near the root crown. Pack the soil around the plant firmly to remove any air pockets in the soil that could cause poorly-anchored roots incapable of absorbing vital nutrients and water.

Water the transplant thoroughly after planting to remove any additional air pockets in the soil surrounding the roots. Additional watering after planting is rarely necessary, except during extended periods of summer drought when plants appear wilted.


How to Care for a Mexican Sage Bush

Mexican sage is a perennial herb native to tropical and subtropical conifer forests in Mexico. The plant typically reaches about 4 feet in height and 3 feet in diameter and produces colorful flowers that can be white, purple or lavender. Mexican sage is used solely for ornamental purposes but should not be confused with the common sage seasoning. Mexican sage is a low-maintenance plant that requires only routine care to thrive in the home garden.

Plant Mexican sage during early spring in a location that receives full sunlight and is composed of fertile, well-drained soil. Spread a 1-inch layer of aged manure over the planting site and use a garden hoe to incorporate it into the soil. Space Mexican sage bushes 36 inches apart.

  • Mexican sage is a perennial herb native to tropical and subtropical conifer forests in Mexico.
  • Mexican sage is a low-maintenance plant that requires only routine care to thrive in the home garden.

Water Mexican sage only during periods of drought, when more than two weeks have passed without significant rainfall. Mexican sage is drought resistant and can survive with little supplemental watering. Do not splash water on the foliage, since moist leaves are more susceptible to disease.

Feed Mexican sage bush once per month using a balanced 10-10-10 NPK fertilizer. Water the plant both before and after applying to prevent root burn and release the nutrients into the soil. Apply following the instructions provided by the manufacturer.

Remove faded or dead Mexican sage flowers as often as possible to encourage the formation of additional blossoms. Use your fingers to pinch off the flowers as close to their point of origin as possible to minimize damage.

  • Water Mexican sage only during periods of drought, when more than two weeks have passed without significant rainfall.
  • Feed Mexican sage bush once per month using a balanced 10-10-10 NPK fertilizer.

Use pruning shears to cut back Mexican sage to about 6 inches from the ground in late fall. Spread a 6-inch layer of mulch over the plant to protect the roots from cold damage. Remove the mulch in early spring to allow normal growth to resume.

Use a thick mulch to protect Mexican sage, such as evergreen boughs or wood chips.

Place hummingbird feeders in windows near a Mexican sage bush to attract hummingbirds.


Sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata Nutt.)

Range map of sagebrush. States are colored green where the species may be found.

Artemisia tridentata. Photo by Sue Weis, Inyo National Forest.

Artemisia tridentata. Photo by Sue Weis, Inyo National Forest.

Artemisia tridentata. Photo by Sue Weis, Inyo National Forest.

Sagebrush is an emblem of the mountain West. Its grey leaves and pale yellow inflorescences inspire differing emotions in different people, or even in the same people at different times. I have known people who, on coming to Nevada, have declared it the ugliest land ever to meet there gaze, only to remain there and become enchanted by the silvery carpet of sagebrush covering the hills and mountains there.

Artemisia is a generic name honouring the Greek goddess Artemis, known in the West as Diana many medicinal plants share this genus with sagebrush, such as A. ludoviciana, A. vulgaris, and A. absinthum. The specific epithet tridentata refers to the leaves, which have at the end three "teeth", a useful tool for identification. Look for small, grey, hairy leaves an inch long or less, rather strap-like and shaped like a long wedge. The tip of the leaf should have the three teeth. A crushed leaf will give off the characteristic odour of sagebrush, a somewhat spicy, bitter smell in areas where sagebrush is the predominant shrub, its familiar scent is almost omnipresent during warmer weather. The stems and twigs are grey the younger twigs are hairy, and older twigs are covered in a stringy, fragile bark that falls off easily. The trunks of older plants are usually low to the ground and twisted into interesting shapes in areas with deeper soil and more water, the trunks can be taller than a person and somewhat straighter, though still slightly twisting. The inflorescences are, as described above, composed of small, pale yellow flowers they appear in late summer on the ends of the branches. There are a few subspecies of this widespread species, and differences in the inflorescence are often helpful in differentiating them.

A. tridentata may be found mainly in cold deserts with powdery or sandy soil. It does not take excess water well: streams and riparian areas within the desert often have sharply demarcated edges where the sagebrush ends and the green area begins. It often occurs with western juniper or rabbitbrush. The areas in between the bushes, which are surprisingly bare, are usually filled in with a desert grass such as cheatgrass, Idaho fescue, bluegrass, or bluebunch wheatgrass.

Daniel Moerman’s Native American Ethnobotany lists A. tridentata as one of the ten plants with the greatest number of uses. Understanding the reason for this is easy after visiting the area: sagebrush is nearly everywhere. Tea was made from various parts of the plant, and it was used extensively in medicine. The wood was used as fuel, and the stringy bark was used in the manufacture of ropes and baskets.

Besides practical uses, sagebrush has a symbolic value, especially in Nevada, where it covers most of the State. Sagebrush is the official state plant, is featured on the state flag, and is even mentioned in the state song. Natives of the West who are poets or writers often remember the plant fondly in their writings, if for nothing more than sentimental value: although fairly good forage, it is rarely eaten by wildlife or livestock because of the bitterness of its foliage.


Caring for Sage

Sage is an easy-to-grow plant that doesn’t demand a ton of care. It has a long growing season and is one of the few herbs that doesn’t lose intensity in flavor after flowering. It’s not susceptible to many pest threats, and most often, your only concern may be mildew, which you can avoid by taking care to not overwater.

  • How to prune sage? You should prune your sage back in early spring. Be sure to cut past the woody, thick stems to keep your next-season leaves fresh and flavorful.
  • How often to water sage. Water sage sparingly. Too much water and you risk mildew. Wait for the soil to completely dry out, then water thoroughly.
  • When to harvest sage. Sage can be harvested as-needed. You should clip just above the part of the plant where two leaves meet. Harvest your sage in the morning, after dew has dried. During the first year of growth, harvest lightly to ensure full growth.
  • How often to harvest sage. Once or twice during each growing season, do a larger harvest, cutting the stems back no more than about half of the sage plant. Doing so will ensure you have a nice, evenly-shaped plant that’s beautifully round and full.
  • How to store sage. For the most fragrant and intense flavor, use your sage fresh. However, you can also dry it for later use or teas. Keep in mind, if cooking with dried sage, the flavor will be much more concentrated. You should adjust recipes accordingly.
  • How to dry sage. Drying sage leaves is simple. Cut small bunches, leaving the leaves on the stems, and tie your cuttings together. Hang upside down in a dark, cool, well-ventilated room until bunches are dry and leaves are crisp. Remove leaves from stems and store them whole, crushing as needed.


Selected Plants of Navajo Rangelands

Big sagebrush and its subspecies are tall, rounded, native shrubs with short, branched, woody trunks. They are normally about four feet high, but vary from two feet in arid conditions to as high as 15 feet on favorable sites. Big sagebrush is perhaps the most important shrub on western rangelands. Evergreen leaves and abundant seed production provide an excellent winter food source to numerous species of large mammals including mule deer, black-tailed deer, white-tailed deer, elk, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep and jackrabbits.

Big sagebrush can be distinguished by its aromatic leaves and stems. The scientific name, Artemisia tridentata, provides another useful clue: the three-toothed leaf tips. The leaves are grayish and slightly hairy or fuzzy. The trunks may form interesting and twisty shapes.

Sagebrush prefers dry soils, and will not grow at stream edges. It is used for tea, rope, medicine, and fuel.


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