Five Things You Didn’t Know About Sagebrush

Sagebrush covers a big chunk of the United States.  But what do you know about it?  Here are a few quick factoids about sagebrush.

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1. They talk to each other (and other plants listen in)

Well not exactly talk, but they do release signals that other plants can exploit.  For example, when a sagebrush plant is attacked by predators like insects, the plant emits volatile organic compounds that neighboring sagebrush plants can sense and react to by producing defensive chemicals that make them unattractive, or even poisonous, to the attackers.  And other plants, like wild tobacco, can eavesdrop on this and ramp up their own defenses, significantly lowering damage from feeding animals.  Source.

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Sagebrush plants emit chemical signals, possibly to warn each other about predators.

2. It’s not a sage.
No this isn’t a trick. But common names of plants often confuse the real relationships among plant families. In this case sage, or Salvia, is an herb used as a spice and for its medicinal properties, and it’s a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae, to botanists). But sagebrush, Artemisia tridentata, is in another family altogether, the sunflower family (Asteraceae). But of course sagebrush flowers are nothing like sunflowers, and in fact they are wind pollinated instead of insect pollinated. Some of the more than 350 species of Artemisia are called wormwoods. Absinth and vermouth are made from wormwood.

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Mountain big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata ssp. vaseyana). Photo: Howard F. Schwartz, Colorado State University, Bugwood.org

3. Sagebrush is locally adapted.

Sagebrush plants grow best if they come from the same habitat they are planted into.  Local adaptation means that plants from a local habitat out-perform plants from places farther away because of natural selection of optimal genetic types.  In a recent study, researchers in Idaho grew sagebrush from one local site and 12 distant populations in the same place (called a common garden).  What they found was startling: 50-95% of plants from distant sites died over the next two decades, but 100% of the local plants lived.   The US Forest Service is doing similar research to inform land managers about the importance of local adaptation in sagebrush, so they can plant the right sagebrush in the right places.

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A common garden study for assessing the importance of local adaptation in sagebrush. Photo: US Forest Service.

4. Greater sage-grouse depend on it for cover and food.

The greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) is found in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, eastern California, Nevada, Utah, western Colorado, South Dakota and Wyoming and the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Habitat fragmentation and destruction across much of the species’ range have contributed to significant population declines over the past century, and today the species is a candidate for listing by the US Fish and Wildlife Service as a threatened or endangered species.  Loss of sagebrush habitat, primarily due to wildfire, invasive species, and livestock grazing, is the main driver of the decline of this species in the western United States because sagebrush provides crucial food and cover for these birds at multiple stages of their life cycle. Greater sage-grouse require large areas of contiguous sagebrush, which is typically killed by wildfire and regenerates slowly from seed in the wild.  Unless we put more sagebrush out on the landscape, greater sage-grouse face an uncertain future.

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Greater sage-grouse. Photo: US Bureau of Land Management

5. Prison inmates are growing it.

Biologists from the Institute for Applied Ecology have partnered with the Departments of Correction in Oregon, Idaho, and Washington as part of the Sustainability in Prisons Project Network to grow and plant sagebrush by the thousands.  These inmates are currently growing 160,000 sagebrush for restoring burned areas and to support the greater sage-grouse.  This model program, supported by the Bureau of Land Management, is designed to be transferable to correctional facilities throughout the west.  Check out this 3-minute video on the project.

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Inmates at Snake River Correctional Institution in Ontario, Oregon are growing sagebrush for greater sage-grouse conservation.

Posted in IAE.

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