I have experienced sage plants in habitats from the steppes of Wyoming to the coastal scrub of California. They anchor a landscape by providing color and texture. But their most evocative quality is the scent.
A review of plants found in the U.S. in the sage genus reveals 68 species. I will highlight prairie sage, California sage, and the sagebrush steppe habitat of the mountain West.
Prairie sage likes rocky soil. They can flourish along roadways and railways. Even travelers who don't seek out unique plants are still likely to come upon a prairie sage in the right habitat. They are reminders to travelers that they have entered a new landscape.
Like most sages, grayish hairs coat the leaves and stems, so that all together, they give a soothing gray feeling to the landscape. The flowers are small and gray.
Prairie sage plants can even thrive in lower-altitude ponderosas forests. They add a gray-green note at the base of these large pines.
California sagebrush is a key species in the California coastal sage and chaparral ecoregion. This type of habitat occurs along coastlines in southern to central California, and given that the plants have ocean views, the habitat is under threat from development. In its fragrant habitat, California sage often grows along with California buckwheat, toyon, and lemonade-berry. More than 100 species of butterflies thrive in this habitat.
In Western Wyoming, the southwestern corner of Colorado, and Western Utah, sagebrush is so dominant that it is part of the official name of the habitat: sagebrush steppe. A steppe is dry, mostly level plain. As I travelled through these states, I would always stop to photograph the scene when I loved a particular landscape. I was amused to find when I put my photos side-by-side that every time I had photographed the same landscape, sagebrush steppe, in the different states. Though the locations were distinct, the features were the same. Then upon conducting some research, I discovered the evocative term, sagebrush steppe, to describe all of them.
Sagebrush is critically important on the steppe as food and shelter for some of the iconic species of the American West. The pronghorn antelope, a gorgeous tawny creature with stripes, needs sagebrush to survive. We saw many herds visible from I-80 in Southwestern Wyoming.
The sage grouse and sage sparrow also require sagebrush to survive. The black-tailed jackrabbit, while found in other habitats, also flourishes in areas of sagebrush.
In the medicine of the Chumash people, California sagebrush is used to help people remember good memories.
The Shoshone and Bannock people, who lived in what is now Wyoming, used all parts of the sagebrush. They created medicine and dye from the leaf, cord and clothing from the bark, food from the seed, and shelter from the whole plant. In their languages, they called sage "bohoo'bi" and "sawah'be."