Reflections on the noble sagebrush
Anyone who has spent much time in Nevada knows the state’s official flower is actually a shrub known as Artemisia tridentate—or sagebrush.
The scruffy green-gray bush thrives just about everywhere in the Silver State—one source claims it covers as much as 40 percent of the state. In fact, it is so prevalent that Nevada is often referred to as Sagebrush State and two sprigs of this aromatic plant appear on the state flag.
But that doesn’t mean sagebrush has always been loved. The Donner Party and other pioneering travelers were forced to hack through miles of sagebrush and greasewood terrain on their journeys across the state — no doubt cursing all the way — and writer Mark Twain wrote disparaging of the noble plant on several occasions.
For example, in an 1861 letter to his mother, Jane, he wrote that upon arriving in Carson City he observed that “in (this) infernal soil nothing but that fag-end of vegetable creation, ‘sage-brush,’ ventures to grow … when crushed, sage-brush [sic] emits an odor which isn’t exactly magnolia and equally isn’t exactly polecat—but it is a sort of compromise between the two.”
Twain, who lived in Nevada from 1861 to 1865, also wrote, “Sage-brush is a very fair fuel, but as a vegetable it is a distinguished failure. Nothing can abide the taste of it but the jackass and his illegitimate child the mule.”
Other writers, however, have looked a bit more favorably on the plant. Marjorie Moore Brown, who arrived in Tonopah in 1904 after her husband opened a law firm in the community, wrote upon arriving that she “stood for a while looking at the landscape — line upon life of running color, tan, henna, lavender, brown. But no green. Not a tree. Not a shrub. A faint odor floated by me reminiscent of Christmas, a spicy something I afterward recognized as sage.”
More recently, acclaimed Nevada author Robert Laxalt wrote in the 1970s about receiving a letter from his daughter that contained a surprise: “Hidden between the pages was a single sprig of Nevada sagebrush. Before I could protect myself, the memories were summoned up and washed over me in a flood.”
According to the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, there are at least a dozen different species of sagebrush found in the state, including the Basin big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata). This particular shrub is silvery-gray in color with yellow flowers and can grow as tall as 10 feet, although most are between one and three feet in height.
The plant, a member of the wormwood family, is notable for its strong, pungent odor, which is particularly acute when wet or when the dried plant is crushed. Some scientists believe the sagebrush’s distinctive fragrance is a natural defense to keep animals from wanting to graze on its branches and leaves.
In fact, most livestock don’t care for sagebrush. Of all the larger mammals, only the pronghorn antelope seems to actually enjoy nibbling on its leaves.
None of this is to suggest that the bush doesn’t have its uses. Native Americans reportedly used sagebrush to halt internal bleeding (usually following childbirth or injury or trauma as a result of fighting) and it had value as a topical dressing to treat infections. The plant was also used by Native Nevada tribes to weave mats.
When not dissing the plant, Twain did acknowledge that “sage-tea made from it tastes like the sage-tea which all boys are so well acquainted with.”
The humorist added that a sagebrush fire “will keep all night, with very little replenishing; and it makes a very sociable campfire, and one around which the most impossible reminiscences sound plausible, instructive, and profoundly entertaining.”
Faint praise but praise nonetheless.
Rich Moreno covers the places and people that make Nevada special.