Ancient legends state that Wormwood (Artemisia genus) plants grew along the path that the diabolical snake took as he exited the Garden of Eden, as a barrier to his return. (1) Throughout the ages since, it has been known as a bitter herb. In the Old Testament, it figures prominently as the bitter results of sinful ways, and “Bitter as Wormwood” was a commonly stated proverb. (2)
Artemisia was used as a medicinal herb plant anciently, and was referred to in Hippocrates' Herbal. (3) In fact, the name Artemisia comes from the name of the ancient Greek goddess Artemis, or Diana, who was the goddess of plants and herbology. Another Artemisia was “the sister and wife of the Greek/Persian King Mausolus, who ruled after his death in 353 BCE. Artemisia was a noted botanist and medical researcher, and to honor her husband/brother, she built a magnificent tomb called the Mausoleum, which was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.” (4)
Artemisia Tridentata, known as desert sage, or big sagebrush, is the New World's Wormwood. Its origins in North America are lost in the mists of history, but researchers have been able to follow clues and patch together a plausible history that is supported by the best science has to offer. “...what do the macro-micro fossil record and historical records tell us about the distribution of big sagebrush? First, that big sagebrush has been present in the Inter- mountain region and parts of the Great Plains for tens of thousands of years, and that it was established in northwestern Arizona before giving way to the present day Sonoran Desert; it was present before the establishment of some of the pinyon/juniper woodlands; and some woodlands are continuing to expand into present day big sagebrush habitat. Some of the fossil records parallel the historical records. Lewis and Clark found it in North Dakota and across Montana and Washington in 1805. Douglas (1914) strengthens the testimony of Lewis and Clark concerning the presence of big sagebrush in the state of Washington in1834. A number of individuals... established the presence of big sagebrush in what now are the states of Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Oregon, Nevada, Washington and California during the early and mid-1800's. All confirming that, in the words of Beetle and Johnson (1982), big sagebrush is where big sagebrush was.” (5)
Desert sage was greatly valued by the native peoples of North America. It was used as food, medicine, cordage, housing and shelter from the elements, clothing, fuel and in ceremonies. They respected the sagebrush ecosystem, and worked within it to supply all of their needs. In the Great Basin area, land of the ancient Paiutes, “small grey-green sage and grease wood bushes covered the valley floors and carpeted the hill slopes. This was the home of the jackrabbit, the antelope, the wolf, and his tricky brother, the coyote.
Here grew the tiny seeds that furnished much food for the Indians. Here also were the ground squirrels, rats, and birds which competed with the Indians for the seeds. Here were the cottontails, crickets, and caterpillars that ate the plants before the seeds matured. Here also went the Indians to harvest the rodents, the insects, and the birds. Higher on the slopes where the weather was cooler and rainfall more frequent, junipers and nut-bearing pinion pines formed a thin mantle over the mountain tops. This was the home of the sage grouse, the marmot, the deer, and the pika, or little-chief-rabbit, who made hay for his winter use. A few streams, which one could step across, traced their way among the pines and down through the sagebrush to disappear into the gravel at the mouths of the canyons. This was the deer-hunting, nut-gathering land of the Indians. If the nut crop failed, both the deer and the Indians grew lean.” (6)
When the white explorers and settlers arrived in the sagebrush ecosystem, they brought with them different expectations of what the land could provide. Clearing the sagebrush and other indigenous plants for farmlands or to make way for grasses to grow that would provide grazing lands for cattle and sheep, became of primary importance. Ranchers and farmers cursing “the blasted sagebrush” took the place of the haunting chants of the natives as they burned sage sticks to carry their prayers to the Great Spirit.
With this shift in the primary use of the land, their consignment to reservations, and the subsequent change in their access to the ecosystem, the native people no longer had the means to provide for their basic needs. Their way of life, along with their traditional uses of desert sage have to a great extent been lost. Some are seeking to restore that knowledge of sagebrush uses that has been lost, and to regain respect for a plant that has reigned in the west for millenia. The following poem defines this ideal.
Ode to Sagebrush
What an amazing plant; the sage, so many faces has it.
The most versatile of our shrubs. High value must be placed upon it.
So many creatures large and small get winter food source from it.
The pungent leaves forever fresh when others are dormant beside it.
Break the wind and catch the snow, the ground is safe around it.
What a conservationist this plant! Why don't more people know it?
Caretaker of the soil, protecting dormant seeds beneath it.
So the desert can once more bloom when conditions are right for it.
And summer too receives a share of favors coming through it.
The shade, the cover, and nests that birds have built within it.
Insect galls on the limbs and burrows dug below it.
What a vast variety of life, find home and solace in it.
Paintbrush, so beautiful and fine, could not survive without it.
Pushing down roots to attach below, nourishment coming out of it.
In fall it blooms and beauty gives to all the land about it.
The autumn days delight the air. Smell the aromas that cause it!
How often I have heard the phrase; “It's just sagebrush, let's remove it.”
So naive these people are to fasten that opinion to it.
I once thought of sage as drab before I really knew it.
Now I view it in another light, and attach much beauty to it.
By Dave Hanks (7)
What will the history of desert sage be in the 21st century? After researching over 1600 scientific and nonscientific articles reviewing Artemisia tridentata, Bruce Welch concludes “Much misinformation concerning the value and ecology of big sagebrush exists in the land management community. ... Big sagebrush is a nursing mother to a host of organisms ranging from microscopic to large mammals. ... I hope that (people) will come to the conclusion that big sagebrush is a valuable plant species worth preserving.” (8) A shift to a plant based diet among the people of North America would benefit greatly the preservation of what remains of desert sage ecosystems.