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Identifying Idaho’s Most Common Sagebrush

Adrian González
Adrian González
Posted on October 19
A beautiful basin big sagebrush. (Michael Godek / Getty)

A beautiful basin big sagebrush. (Michael Godek / Getty)

Sagebrush could give potatoes a run for its money, as far as famous Idaho plants go. Researchers at Boise State University are using sagebrush to help estimate the effects of climate change — let’s see a potato do that! There are 37 species of sagebrush in the Gem state, along with many more subspecies.

More than a hearty plant, sagebrush is an essential part of the North American ecosystem. Here is a guide to three of the most common species in Idaho.

Mountain Big Sagebrush

As you can guess by the name, this varietal is between 6,000 and 9,000 feet in elevation. According to NatureServe, mountain big sagebrush, scientifically known as subspecies “vaseyana,” is an apparently secure species, meaning it’s ranked between vulnerable and fully secure.

  • 🌿 Shape: The branch pattern is low and spreads mostly upright near the ground. Flower stalks protrude over the top of the plant, typically up to four feet.
  • 👃 Give it a sniff: Its leaves are about an inch long and have a mint-like smell when crushed.
  • 🔷 Color: Gray-green color resembling an avocado left on the counter for more than twelve seconds. Bring an ultraviolet light and it will shine an intense blue color.
  • 🥀 Flowers: Maxes out at six flowers per floret and will not sprout.
A mighty Wyoming Big Sagebrush. (Matt Lavin / Flickr)

A mighty Wyoming Big Sagebrush. (Matt Lavin / Flickr)

Wyoming Big Sagebrush

Scientifically known as “wyomingensis,” you’ll find it abundantly in Wyoming. Here’s how you can spot it in Idaho.

  • 🌵 Location: Found in the lower half of the upland and throughout semi‐desert zones where soils are slightly alkaline.
  • 💡 Shape: The main stem is divided at ground level but more bulbous in shape than mountain big sagebrush.
  • 🍂 Leaves: Less than an inch long, curved outward, and nearly colorless under UV light.
  • 👃 Give it a sniff: Its smell might remind you of turpentine when crushed.

Fun Fact

Boise State University researchers were able to sequence sagebrush genome and found that it is more than twice as large as the human genome.

Foothills big sagebrush. “Artemisia tridentata ssp. xericensis.” (JustineChris / Flickr)

Foothills big sagebrush. “Artemisia tridentata ssp. xericensis.” (JustineChris / Flickr)

Foothills Big Sagebrush

Perhaps the closest in characteristics to the basin big sagebrush, subspecies “xericensis” is also ranked as apparently secure.

  • 🌳 Shape: Similar to a tree, with a trunk at the base and v-shaped branches throughout. It can grow to more than eight feet tall.
  • 🍃 Leaves: Long and narrow (like its close cousin rosemary).
  • 👃 Give it a sniff: Strong turpentine smell when crushed.
  • 📍 Location: Normally found in drainage bottoms, small concave areas, and valley floors.
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