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Why I can’t stop smelling this bush

Updated: Feb 27, 2023

The Dino-mobile admiring shrub steppe habitat and Sierra Mountains in the distance

On a trip to southern California, I was so pleasantly surprised to find myself among the silvery scent-sational low shrubs I recall from trips to the east side of the Washington Cascades, where the climate is much drier. As I observed, much of California resembles the habitats of eastern Washington, planted firmly in the rain shadow of the tall Cascades mountains which collect the mountain’s share of the rain. Now familiar looking shrubs were all over as I was exploring Parker Lake, a little south east of Yosemite National Park. Of course I couldn’t resist petting these. Botanists can’t keep their hands to themselves.

Sagebrush habitat with aspen and Jeffrey pine in CA Sierras
sagebrush, by georg lange

The shrub is evergreen, of silvery gray color. And they smell simply divine! I seriously looked like a nut and was even caught talking to myself by another hiker. I kept smelling a few leaves I plucked to examine and was quite sure it was my familiar sagebrush species from Washington. Naturally I grabbed a small handful to take home, plucking a few branch tips from bushes as I walked along. I like serving a double purpose when I forage- collect something for me to use &/or learn from, and help keep the trail clear with selective pruning. Artemisia tridentata, also known as sagebrush, though so are several Artemisias, is easily identified by 3-rounded tips of a very elongated triangular-shape leaves, which attach to the woody stems at the triangle’s point. And they are indeed potent with phytochemistry. If I had remembered to drink the canned adult beverage at the lake, then I would have been at risk of rolling around on some of these Artemisia like catnip (botanip?).

to roll on sagebrush or not to roll on sagebrush

Now I have a little sampling to play with thanks to a road-trip through sagebrush habitat, and play indeed.

Artemisia tridentata has usable leaves and flowers. The very (trust me VERY) bitter leaves will make you sweat, are helpful with healing lung infections and also promote digestion. Crushing and sniffing the leaf scent is lovely, but for lung infections, inhaling the steam while steeping the leaves can aid healing which is a good thing to know for the winter flu and cold season. Good timing.

As with pretty much 95% of all medicinal and/or smelly plants, there is complex phytochemistry in these sagebrush. They are medicinal and can also cause some skin irritation in sensitive people. These may be from sesquiterpene lactones which are known from other Artemisia species. So I probably shouldn’t try to grow a patch at home to roll around in. Although it is also used as a poultice or even tincture for wounds both for antiseptic and liniment (aka pain relief). Now I’m torn- to roll on sagebrush or not to roll on sagebrush. That is the plant-nerding question.

Go home scallops; you’re dinner party was an hour ago. Sagebrush could be the refreshing bouncer that kicks them out while making you a soothing cup of tea.

It can also create a dye from all plant parts combined, is used as a room disinfectant & a smudge bundle to dispel negative energy (kinda the same thing as disinfectant right??). Sagebrush are also famously flammable. Their habitat is decimated by wildfires. Their aromatic nature is the clue. Ooo, now I’m thinking how amazing a sagebrush fire must be, but still- bad thing. Anyway, their stickiness is a clue to their flammability as they’re high essential oil and resin content is what also makes them so ignitable.

Sagebrush fire footage from National Interagency Fire Center

Artemisia absinthium, by Swallowtail Garden Seeds

A. absinthium is known as wormwood & where we get absinth from. It is also quite medicinal and the liquor is known to effect the central nervous system. And you thought seeing a green fairy was just a drunken myth....

Be warned- prolonged use can cause permanent nerve degeneration. And we kind of need our nerves. A little though for a special uniquely flavored cocktail is alright.

The traditional dilution method of serving absynth over sugar with it's characteristic cloudy green hue.

Other famous Artemisias include: A. dracunculus (tarragon) for cooking and A. vulgaris (mugwort) for many other medicinal uses.

Artemisias are among the oldest medicinal plants documented, with Hippocrates heralding it’s uses. The ancient Greek goddess Artemis, the huntress and matron of the moon, gives her name to the plant in recognition of these many values. Oh, no wonder I can’t stop sniffing it.

various portrayals of goddess Diana/Artemis, by Etienne Mahler

What does Artemisia tridentata smell like? It’s adjacent to minty with some woody, earthy, and sharp/bitter notes. My first tea had too many leaves and steeped very long and thus wow was that bitter. I dumped a load of honey into my small tea mug and still could not get down more than a few sips. And then I read that a little goes a long way. Definitely agree! I found only a tiny pinch of leaves (think 2-4 small leaves) steeped for a short time lends a nice subtle tingly minty sensation and flavor with minimal bitterness to a cup of chai. The mint-tingles lasted for at least 10 minutes after drinking, thus I am thinking of use as a breath freshener or to kill less desirable aftertastes from foods. I love a good curry and certain seafoods, but they can hang around in the mouth and even deeper, like fun party guests who won’t go home while the hosts are trying to clean up a bit before getting into pajamas for a well earned sleep. Go home scallops; you’re dinner party was an hour ago. Sagebrush could be the refreshing bouncer that kicks them out while making you a soothing cup of tea. I’m suddenly curious if this handsome shrub is single and likes handsy botanists.

I look forward to the health benefits and refreshment of this new sampling of sagebrush and it's memento of an amazing trip. Hope you get to pet & sniff your own Artemisia as well.


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