Sagebrush

Sagebrush near Raft River, UT
Sagebrush near Raft River, UT – Photo Courtesy and Copyright 2007 Dr. Leila Shultz
Hi, I’m Holly Strand of Stokes Nature Center in beautiful Logan Canyon.

I was always prone to homesickness when I spent long periods in the Eastern US and abroad. Returning to Colorado for visits, I would break off a small branch to pack in my suitcase. That way I could always take some essence of home along with me. Now I don’t need to do that. The desert air and cold winters here in Utah make it a sagebrush heaven.

The scent that has become so dear to me comes from the volatile oils of the sagebrush plant. Ironically, the smell that appeals so much to me repels most animals. The aromatic properties of the sagebrush are a by-product of chemicals that evolved as a pest deterrent and as anti-freeze. Sagebrush oils have a very bitter taste. Browsers, such as deer and elk avoid the plants, nibbling on sagebrush only in winter months when the concentration of oils has decreased. And even then, only as a last resort. The pronghorn– a North American native that co-evolved with sagebrush–can tolerate it better than other herbivores.

Within the sunflower family, sagebrush belongs to the genus Artemisia – a group of wind-pollinated plants spread mostly across the northern hemisphere. The 400 or so species in this genus include a variety of sagebrushes, sageworts, and wormwoods.

The Atlas of Vascular Plants of Utah lists 19 different species in the Artemisia genus. Among the most common, you’ll find sand sagebrush in the dunes and deep sand regions in southern Utah. Black sagebrush is found on gentle, rocky slopes and windswept ridges in dry, shallow soils, in the foothills and desert mountain ranges. Bud sagebrush is common in salt-desert shrub communities from 4-6000 ft. Almost everywhere, however, big sagebrush dominates. It occurs in valleys, basins, and mountain slopes, at elevations between 2,500 and 10,000 feet. In Utah, you’ll also hear the big version called Great Basin, Wyoming or mountain sagebrush.

Humans have put the unique qualities of sagebrush and its relatives to good use. The volatile oils are toxic to many intestinal parasites, therefore early Americans used it to rid themselves of worms. Oils have also been used to combat infections and to treat internal wounds. Eurasian wormwood–an introduced plant in Utah–is the defining ingredient, in the liquor absinthe, and is used for flavoring in other spirits and wines, including bitters and vermouth. The spice tarragon comes from dragonswort, an Artemisa species found in both Eurasia and N. America.

Ecologists used to think that the presence of sagebrush discourages or suppresses other forms of life. Certainly, sagebrush desert steppes are generally poor in species. The truth is that few species can tolerate the temperature extremes, soil conditions and lack of water the way that it can. So the next time you see some, pick a leaf, crush it, smell it, and admire this tough but well-adapted Utah native.

Dr. Leila Shultz, a Utah State University expert on sagebrush provided the science information for this piece.

Thanks to the Rocky Mountain Power Foundation for supporting research and development of Wild About Utah topics.

For Wild About Utah and Stokes Nature Center I’m Holly Strand.

 

Credits:

Photo Courtesy & Copyright 2007 Dr. Leila Shultz
Text: Stokes Nature Center: Holly Strand

Additional Reading:

Digital Atlas of the Vascular Plants of Utah, https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/wild_facpub/1649/

Shultz, Leila. 2012. Pocket Guide to Sagebrush. PRBO Conservation Science. https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/sagestep_reports/20/
As pdf: http://rdjzr2agvvkijm6n3b66365n-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/sagebrush_pock_guide_reduced.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. https://upcolorado.com/utah-state-university-press/item/2323-woody-plants-of-utah

One of the World’s Largest Shrimp Buffets

One of the world's largest shrimp buffets: Brine Shrimp Naupli (Artemia) from the Great Salt Lake, Courtesy USGS
Brine Shrimp Naupli
from the Great Salt Lake
Courtesy USGS

One of the most unique and important habitats in Utah is the Great Salt Lake. It’s the largest U.S. lake west of the Mississippi River and it’s the 4th largest terminal lake (meaning it has no outlet) in the world. The waters of the Great Salt Lake are typically 3 to 5 times saltier than the ocean . For that reason, you won’t find any fish; in fact, the largest aquatic animals are brine shrimp which are little crustaceans that are found worldwide in saline lakes and seas. You may know the brine shrimp as “sea monkeys” as they are called when packaged and sold as novelty gifts.

Brine shrimp like their water to be between 2 and 25 percent salt. The Great Salt Lake species is especially well adapted to cold . If the temperature is moderate and there is plenty of algae to eat, the females will produce more live young. As temperatures lower, food supply decreases, or other stress factors appear, females will switch to producing cysts which are tiny hard-shelled egg-like spheres. Cysts are metabolically inactive, and can survive without food, without oxygen, even at below freezing temperatures. During winter, the adult brine shrimp typically die from lack of food or low temperature, but the cysts are able to survive the winter and form a large population base for the next generation of brine shrimp.

Brine shrimp practically fill the Great Salt Lake. At times, they become so numerous that you can see them as large reddish-brown streaks on the surface of the lake. Because birds like to eat them, the Great Salt Lake supports one of the largest migratory bird concentrations in Western North America. Birds like the Eared Grebe and Wilson’s Phalarope reach their largest concentrations anywhere as they load up at one of the world’s largest shrimp buffets. In all, during peak migration you’ll find 2 to 5 million birds using the Great Salt Lake to obtain the nourishment required for their long and strenuous trip. It’s fascinating that these tiny prehistoric crustaceans play such an important role in sustaining the large number and wide variety of birds that travel through or live in our State.

Credits:

Audio: Sound for this recording was generously provided by the Western Soundscape Archive at the University of Utah J. Willard Marriott Library. http://westernsoundscape.org/

Photo: Courtesy USGS, http://ut.water.usgs.gov/greatsaltlake/shrimp/

Text: Stokes Nature Center: Anna Paul, Holly Strand logannature.org

Sources & Additional Reading

USGS, Utah Water Science Center, Brine Shrimp and Ecology of Great Salt Lake. (Courtesy Internet Archive Wayback Machine, Apr 15, 2008) https://wildaboututah.org/wp-content/uploads/080415-Wayback-USGS-Brine-Shrimp-and-Ecology-of-Great-Salt-Lake.pdf Formerly: http://ut.water.usgs.gov/greatsaltlake/shrimp/

US Fish and Wildlife Service, Bear River Migratory Refuge. http://www.fws.gov/bearriver/

Westminster College GSL Project –
http://people.westminstercollege.edu/faculty/tharrison/gslfood/studentpages/brine.html

Great Salt Lake, Utah, USGS, https://pubs.usgs.gov/wri/wri994189/PDF/WRI99-4189.pdf

Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, State of Utah, https://wildlife.utah.gov/gsl/

Larese-Casanova, Mark, The Brine Shrimp of Great Salt Lake, Wild About Utah, Jan 6, 2011, https://wildaboututah.org/the-brine-shrimp-of-great-salt-lake/

Brine Shrimp, Genetic Science Learning Center, University of Utah, http://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/gsl/foodweb/brine_shrimp/