Sage Steppe

Mountain big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata subsp. Vaseyana) in flower - Photo Courtesy and Copyright Dr. Leila Shultz
Mountain big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata subsp. Vaseyana) in flower – Photo Courtesy and Copyright Dr. Leila Shultz

Three-tip sage (Artemisia tripartite) with visible yellow flowers. - Photo Courtesy and Copyright Dr. Leila ShultzThree-tip sage (Artemisia tripartite) with visible yellow flowers. – Photo Courtesy and Copyright Dr. Leila Shultz

Zane Gray’s “Riders of the Purple Sage” and Steve Tremble’s “Sage Brush Ocean” are book titles that may invoke excitement from your literary past. Or you may be traveling along the interstates and side roads of our great state as monotony sets in and drowsiness tightens your grip on the wheel while you nod your way through endless miles of this seemingly drab landscape.

In science jargon it’s referred to as sage steppe, the dominant landscape throughout much of Utah and the Great Basin. Much of this maligned biotic community has been degraded or lost through various mismanagement practices. Sage Steppe is considered an endangered ecosystem despite the seemingly large area it inhabits, primarily due to fragmentation. And the iconic Gunnison sage grouse has followed its demise having recently been placed on the threatened species list.
I just returned from spending a day of study in the field with 16 college students running transects for the Grand Teton N.P. The park is spending millions in sage steppe restoration work to reclaim this critical plant community.

Sagebrush is an important member of an ecosystem that helps support many birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals, as well as an abundance of insects and microbes. One study found nearly 300 arthropod species directly living on just a few plants including- 72 spider, 237 insect, 42 of which were gall-forming, amongst many other species. Such diversity also indicates that sage is playing an important part in maintaining the health of the environment providing ecosystem services such as soil protection, water conservation and nutrient cycling.
Sage is well adapted to the demands of semi-arid deserts. It has tap roots that can go over 15 feet deep to suck up any ground water that might exist and forms extensive webs of surface roots in association with symbiotic fungal hyphae to efficiently gather any rain that might fall. Oftentimes, sagebrush grows in clonal communities with members that can live over 100 years!

Aromatic odors emanating from sage, especially following a downpour of rain, comes from a mix of chemicals including camphor, terpenoids, and a cocktail of other volatile compounds. Some of the chemicals have anti-herbivory action by killing the gut bacteria of carious browsers although pronghorn antelope seem to have evolved resistance to these toxins. Other browsers like cattle, sheep, and mule deer can only eat sagebrush in small doses or whan the leaves are young and tender.

It is this mixture of molecules that sagebrush produces which come into play for communication. Sagebrush is eaten by many mammals and insects. When sagebrush is browsed on by a pronghorn or grasshopper volatile compounds are released from the wound that warn other branches of the same sagebrush as well as the neighboring sage about the potential threat. The sagebrush in the area react to the warning by metabolizing toxins that make them taste unappealing and that cause digestive discomfort for future herbivores who try to make a meal of them.

Native Americans considered sage a sacred plant. It offered medicine, clothing, shelter, and was commonly used in their ceremonial sweat lodges. Last but not least, my lovely granddaughter was given the name Sage. So the next time you find yourself surrounded by our “sagebrush ocean” pay tribute to this vibrant and intricate community of life.

Jack Greene, a lover of sagebrush.

Credits:

Pictures: Courtesy and Copyright Dr. Leila Shultz
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

Wind and Sagebrush

Wind and Sagebrush: Mountain big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata subsp. Vaseyana) in flower - Photo Courtesy and Copyright Dr. Leila Shultz
Mountain big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata subsp. Vaseyana) in flower – Photo Courtesy and Copyright Dr. Leila Shultz

Wind and Sagebrush:Three-tip sage (Artemisia tripartite) with visible yellow flowers. - Photo Courtesy and Copyright Dr. Leila ShultzThree-tip sage (Artemisia tripartite) with visible yellow flowers. – Photo Courtesy and Copyright Dr. Leila Shultz

Hi, I’m Holly Strand of the Quinney College of Natural Resources at Utah State University.

By late summer, most of Utah’s flowering plants have fizzled out for the year—those that remain are looking pretty spent. But not true for the sagebrush. It’s show time for over 20 types of sagebrush of the Intermountain West.

Like grasses and conifers, sagebrush plants are pollinated by the wind. They have no need for the specialized traits designed to attract live pollinators. Instead, they have evolved other strategies to survive and multiply.

For instance, wind-pollinated plants don’t need showy, colorful petals to attract insects or birds. The wind is going to do its job anyway regardless of visual cues. Thus sagebrush flowers are very small and nondescript. In fact, when passing by flowering sagebrush you might not even notice that it’s in bloom. Look for long spikes with clusters of tiny flower heads. The pale yellow flowers are concealed by petal-like bracts, which are the very same color as the rest of the plant.

While the flowers of sagebrush lack in beauty, they make up in quantity. A single flowering stem of the most common sagebrush—known simply as big sagebrush–can hold hundreds of flower heads that produce a massive amount of pollen. Most wind-blown pollen grains won’t end up anywhere near the female part of another plant. So to make up for this risky method of fertilization, individual plants must produce greater volumes of pollen. In contrast, plants with live pollinators get door to door service during fertilization. Far less pollen is needed to get the same job done.

Scent is another way for plants to attract live pollinators. Species pollinated by bees and flies have sweet scents, whereas those pollinated by beetles have strong musty, spicy, or fruity odors. However, the iconic western scent of the sagebrush has absolutely nothing to do with pollination. Instead, the pungent aroma of the sagebrush is a by-product of certain chemicals produced in the leaves. These chemicals evolved to repel animals and to reduce the odds of being eaten or grazed.

The chemicals—bitter terpenes, camphors and other secondary compounds–—peak in early spring. But as the late-summer flowering period approaches, the chemicals start to break down. By winter, browsers like deer and elk can nibble on the protein-rich seed heads without getting a nasty aftertaste.

Thanks to botanist Leila Shultz for sharing her knowledge of sagebrush. For a link to the online version of Leila’s book Pocket Guide to Sagebrush, go to www.wildaboututah.org
If you’d like a hard copy of this Pocket Guide, send an email to wildaboututah@gmail.com We have 5 copies to give away to listeners from across the state.

For Wild About Utah and the Quinney College of Natural Resources, I’m Holly Strand.

NOTE: The copies are gone. You can view the book as a .pdf here or check here for the next printing from http://www.sagestep.org/pubs/brushguide.html.

Credits:

Photo Courtesy & Copyright 2007 Dr. Leila Shultz
Text: Holly Strand, Quinney College of Natural Resources at Utah State University

Sources & Additional Reading:

Dudareva, Natalia. 2005. Why do flowers have scents? Scientific American April 18. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-do-flowers-have-scent/

Shultz, Leila. 2012. Pocket Guide to Sagebrush. PRBO Conservation Science. http://plants.usda.gov/java/
As pdf: http://www.sagestep.org/pubs/pubs/sagebrush_pock_guide.pdf

Shultz, L. M. 2006. The Genus Artemisia (Asteraceae: Anthemideae). In The Flora of North America north of Mexico, vol. 19: Asterales, pp. 503–534. Flora of North America Editorial Committee, eds. Oxford University Press. New York and Oxford.

USDA, NRCS. 2012. The PLANTS Database, National Plant Data Team, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS):
http://www.plants.usda.gov

VanBuren, R., J. C. Cooper, L. M. Shultz and K. T. Harper. 2011. Woody Plants of Utah. Utah State University Press & Univ. Colorado. 513 pp.

Amazing Adaptations of Utah’s Desert Plants

Amazing Adaptations of Utah’s Desert Plants: Click to view larger image of Tap roots that grow deep into the soil to reach groundwater, Photo Courtesy and Copyright Mark Larese-Casanova, Photographer
Tap roots grow deep
to seek groundwater
Photo Courtesy & Copyright
Mark Larese-Casanova, Photographer

Amazing Adaptations of Utah’s Desert Plants: Click to view larger image of Winterfat trichomes, the light-colored dense ‘hairs’ on leaves and stems that shade the plant and collect morning dew, Photo Courtesy and Copyright Mark Larese-Casanova, PhotographerWinterfat trichomes
Hair-like trichomes provide shade
and absorb dew
Photo Courtesy & Copyright
Mark Larese-Casanova, Photographer

Amazing Adaptations of Utah’s Desert Plants: Click to view larger image of the waxy coating of the Waxy Creosote Leaves, Photo Courtesy and Copyright Mark Larese-Casanova, PhotographerPrickly Pear Cactus
Fibrous roots quickly absorb water
and store it in wide succulent leaves
Photo Courtesy US FWS
Gary M. Stolz, Photographer

Amazing Adaptations of Utah’s Desert Plants: Click to view larger image of the waxy coating of the Waxy Creosote Leaves, Photo Courtesy and Copyright Mark Larese-Casanova, PhotographerWaxy Creosote Bush
Leaf coating inhibits desication
Photo Courtesy & Copyright
Mark Larese-Casanova, Photographer

Hi, this is Mark Larese-Casanova from the Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.

Anyone who lives in Utah knows that it’s a dry state. In fact, around three-quarters of our state is considered desert. A desert is often characterized as an area that receives less than ten inches of precipitation each year. But, high levels of evaporation, which are influenced by temperature, wind speed, and solar radiation, also contribute to creating a dry desert ecosystem.

So, how exactly are plants able to survive in Utah’s deserts, which are so dry? It turns out that the plants that grow and flourish in Utah’s deserts have an amazing array of adaptations for survival.

Many shrubs and trees, such as desert willow, and certain species of sagebrush and mesquite, have thick taproots that grow deep into the soil to reach groundwater. This helps the plants survive the hot, dry summer. Some mesquite taproots have been found to grow as deep as 200 feet to reach a constant water supply.

Cacti, such as the various types of prickly pear, have almost an opposite adaptation. They produce dense tufts of fibrous roots just below the surface of the soil. This allows cacti to quickly absorb water from brief rainstorms, and then store the water in their thick, succulent leaves.

As temperature increases, desert plants face the danger of excessive water loss from their leaves. A thick, waxy coating on the outside of leaves often helps to retain water. The shiny wax also reflects sunlight to keep the leaves relatively cooler. To further reduce leaf temperature and water loss, some plants, such as brittlebush, grow light-colored dense ‘hairs’ on their leaves and stems. These trichomes not only shade the plant, but also aid in absorbing water from morning dew.

If temperatures get too hot, and drought stress too great, some plants, such as creosote bush and ocotillo, may drop their leaves several times each year to ensure survival. Some of these plants have green chlorophyll in their stems so they can still produce food through photosynthesis when there are no leaves on the plant.

While this is just a sample of an amazing collection of adaptations, it’s clear that desert plants are champions of survival in a harsh ecosystem where water is so scarce.

For Wild About Utah, I’m Mark Larese-Casanova.

Credits:

Images: Courtesy & Copyright Mark Larese-Casanova
US FWS images.fws.gov
Text:     Mark Larese-Casanova, Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.
Additional Reading:

Utah’s Desert Dwellers: Living in a Land of Climate Extremes. Wildlife Review. Utah Division of Wildlife Resources
wildlife.utah.gov/wr/0706desert/0706desert.pdf

Deserts. James MacMahon. The Audubon Society Nature guides. 1985. http://www.amazon.com/Deserts-National-Audubon-Society-Nature/dp/0394731395

Natural History of the Colorado Plateau and Great Basin, Harper, St. Clair, Thorne, and Hess (Eds.), 1994. http://www.amazon.com/Natural-History-Colorado-Plateau-Great/dp/0870815113

The Biology of Deserts, David Ward, Oxford University Press, 2009. http://www.amazon.com/Biology-Deserts-Habitats/dp/0199211477

 

Woody Plants of Utah

Rubber Rabbitbrush
Ericameria nauseosa

Copyright © 2010 Lyle Bingham 

Big Sagebrush
Artemisia tridentata

Southwest Regional Gap Analysis Project Field Crew/life.nbii.gov 

Shadscale Saltbush
Atriplex confertifolia

Southwest Regional Gap Analysis Project Field Crew/life.nbii.gov 

Hi I’m Holly Strand.

If you ‘re a plant lover, I’ve got just the thing for your Christmas list! A new field guide is just now hitting the shelves. It’s called Woody Plants of Utah by Renee Van Buren, Janet Cooper, Leila Shultz and Kimball Harper.

You may already own the very excellent Guide to the Trees of Utah and Intermountain West by Michael Kuhns. This book will help you identify over 219 native and introduced trees. It’s very useful because trees are what people tend to notice and appreciate. But trees are the dominant plant form on only 15% of Utah’s land area. Elsewhere, frequent droughts and extreme temperatures make life too hard for them.

Shrublands however, cover over 50% of the state. And that—in my opinion—is why you would also want the book Woody Plants of Utah on your shelf or in your backpack, for its pictures and descriptions of shrubs are outstanding.

I was amazed to find that there are over 82 species of shrub in the sunflower family alone! Sagebrush is in this family so that helps push the number up. Every Utahn should be able to recognize the aromatic big sagebrush that occurs in virtually every Utah county. As its common name implies it is larger than other kind of sagebrush. It can grow over 3 meters high! Other common species are Bigelow, sand, silver, and Wyoming sagebrush. In all there are over 19 different sagebrush species in the state.

Rabbitbrush is the common name for a number of shrub species distributed within 3 genera of the sunflower family. One of the most common forms, ericameria nauseosa, sounds like it might make you ill. Yet as the name suggests this yellow-flowered shrub is consumed by rabbits as well as by deer, elk, and pronghorn.

Where evaporation exceeds precipitation there’s a build-up of salts in the soil. This is common around the Great Salt Lake where water leaches into surrounding lands and then evaporates, concentrating salts near the surface. A number of shrubs are specifically adapted to saline conditions. Shadcale is one of the more common salt-tolerant amaranths. You many not recognize the name but undoubtedly you’ve driven or walked by this shrub innumerable times.

There are so many other shrubs to get to know: manzanitas, ephedras, mesquite, mountain mahogany, wild rose and wild raspberry just to name a few. Woody Plants of Utah will help you explore this fascinating but often underappreciated life form that blankets so much of our state.

Order the book through Utah State University Press or find it at your local bookstore.

For pictures and links go to www.Wildaboututah.org

For Wild About Utah, I’m Holly Strand.

Credits:

Images: Courtesy and Copyright Lyle Bingham
and Courtesy the NBII LIFE, http://life.nbii.gov
Text: Holly Strand

Sources & Additional Reading:
Van Buren, Renee, Janet Cooper, Leila Shultz and Kimball Harper. 2011.
Woody Plants of Utah: A Field Guide with Identification Keys to Native and Naturalized Trees, Shrubs, Cacti, and Vines. Utah State University Press.
http://www.usu.edu/usupress/books/index.cfm?isbn=8244

Kuhns, Michael. 1998. Guide to the Trees of Utah and Intermountain West Utah State University Press.
http://www.usu.edu/usupress/books/index.cfm?isbn=8244