I love sagebrush. I love its fragrance. It is one of my favorite smells in nature, second only to the occasional pockets of sweet “conifer” smell that you sometimes get when hiking through the spruce/fir forest. Sagebrush, more than just about any plant, defines the west.
Sagebrush is of the genus Artemisia, not to be confused with Salvia, the genus that includes the sage that you know and love from cooking. There are around a dozen species of Artemisia that grow in Colorado. The genus is named after Artemis, the Greek goddess (Diana to the Romans) of the moon, hunting and the natural world in general. They are not all created equal – big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata), for example, has a much more pungent smell compared to its smaller cousins. This article focuses on two of those smaller cousins that grow abundantly in the Front Range and across the west: silver sage (Artemisia frigida) and prairie sage (Artemisia ludoviciana).
Sagebrush is part of the aster family, and are related to daisies. Flowers in the aster family are composites: what appears to be a single flower is really a densely packed collection of much smaller flowers. Think of a sunflower – if you look close, you’ll see that what appears as a single flower is really a bunch of flowers. The “petals” of a sunflower aren’t petals at all but are ray florets, and each is a flower in its own right. The ray florets surround densely packed disc florets, each of which is also a flower. The disc florets become seeds after pollination. Sagebrush works the same way, except they don’t have ray florets. If you look close at the green-ish flowers, which bloom around July and August, you can barely make out each tiny flower. If you shake a flower head in the fall, expect to see dozens of tiny seeds fall out.
Silver sage, pictured above, is also known as fringed sage. At first blush you might think the “fringed” comes from the scientific name Artemisia frigida, but the Latin word “frigida” means “cold” – due to the locations in Mongolia and Siberia where this plant was first described in the early 1800’s. Both common names probably come from the fringed leaves, which are covered in tiny, fine, silvery hairs that give this plant a soft, velvet feel. When sunlight hits it just right, it shimmers. The other common Front Range sagebrush, prairie sage, has larger leaves and lacks the fine hairs. The fragrance is slightly different than silver sage. Both grow in sunny, well-drained areas. Both have many traditional uses – medicinal, scent removal, green dye, and ceremonial. Prairie sage especially is burned as incense for ceremonies, purification and to ward away evil spirits.
Last year was a banner year for prairie sage. This year appears just as good, though I am seeing quite a bit more silver sage as well. Perhaps the dry early spring has something to do with it. To fully experience them, gently rub your fingers against the leaves (not hard enough to harm the plant!) to release their fragrance. They can be more fragrant when they are wet.