California Sagebrush

California Sagebrush © DSchiel

Artemisia californica
NATIVE

Description (Jepson, PlantID.net)

  • Eudicotyledon
    • Eudicots are a major lineage of flowering plants; see family for general characteristics
  • Sunflower Family (Asteraceae)
  • Drought-tolerant evergreen shrub
  • Stems, many, slender, and flexible
  • Leaves
    • Gray-green, with glandular (resin-filled) hairs
    • Threadlike; some deeply lobed
    • Margins curled under
    • Highly aromatic
  • Flowers
    • Inflorescence (flower arrangement) of nodding flowerheads along leafy branch ends
    • Each disciform head (see Sunflower family) is tightly packed with tiny yellow-green flowers
      • 6-10 female (pistillate) peripheral flowers with reduced or missing rays
      • 15-30 bisexual central disk flowers
    • Ovary inferior (below the attachment of other flower parts)
  • Fruit is a resinous achene (a single-seeded, dry fruit that does not split open)
  • Height to 8 ft.

Distribution

  • Native to California
    • Grows in coastal sage scrub, coastal strand, chaparral, open woodlands, and dry foothills
    • See Calflora statewide observations of this plant
  • Outside California grows into northern Baja California, Mexico
  • Grows at elevations to 2,600 ft.
Flowers © DSchiel

Uses (San Mateo County Parks prohibits removal of any natural material)

  • Wildlife
    • Nesting habitat for many birds
      • Preferred habitat of the threatened California gnatcatcher (Polioptila californica)
  • Native people
    • One of the most medicinally valuable plants
      • Used to treat colds, headaches, toothaches, wounds (antimicrobial), and as a gynecological aid
      • Smoke inhaled and tea drunk for bronchial problems
    • Leaves dried and smoked like tobacco leaves
    • Branches used as firesticks, arrow foreshafts, for windbreaks, enclosures, and roofing
    • Used to deter fleas and other insects from bedding
    • White sagebrush (Artemisia ludoviciana) is particularly associated with the practice of smudging, the ceremonial burning of sacred herbs by Native people (Casey and Wynia 2010)
Leaves © DSchiel

Name Derivation

  • Artemisia (ar-tem-IS-ee-a) – from the Greek Artemis, goddess connected with the healing arts and childbirth and/or Artemisia, Queen of Caria (in Turkey) in the 4th-century BCE, whom ancient authorities credit with discovering the medicinal value of plants in this genus (Irving 2015)
  • Sagebrush – from the aroma resembling true sages (Salvia) and “brush,” for the dense growth habit (compare coyote brush) or because the branches could be gathered together and used as a brush
Gall © DSchiel

Notes

  • Most important and widely distributed plant in the coastal sage scrub or “soft chaparral” community
  • Leaves are adapted to dry, hot summers of our Mediterranean climate
    • Needle-like shape, curled edges, and glandular hairs all help preserve water
    • Dimorphic: larger leaves produced during the rainy season are replaced by smaller leaves during the summer, reducing water loss while still allowing photosynthesis
  • Wind pollinated and seeds primarily wind dispersed
    • Mugwort, coast silk tassel, oaks, and grasses are other examples of plants at Edgewood that are wind pollinated
      • About 12% of flowering plants and most conifers are wind-pollinated (U.S. Forest Service)
      • These plants do not waste energy on flower features that attract animal pollinators; instead, their flowers generally have these characteristics
        • Small, petalless, and unscented, with muted colors
        • No nectar
        • Stamen (male flower part) and stigma (pollen receiving structure of female flower part) are exposed to air currents
        • Male flowers produce a great deal of pollen, which is very small, dry, and easily airborne, as all allergy sufferers know!
  • Re-establishes following fire by seed and root-crown sprouting
  • Populations have been declining over the past 60 years and are being replaced by Mediterranean annual grasses
    • One possible factor is nitrogen deposition from air pollution (Young-Mathews 2020)
    • At Edgewood, nitrogen deposition drove the extirpation of the Bay checkerspot butterfly (Euphydryas editha bayensis) in the early 2000s.
  • Nicknamed “cowboy cologne” because of aromatic terpenes (constituents of essential oils), which deter browsers and make the plant highly flammable
  • Not to be confused with the common culinary sage (Salvia officinalis in the Mint family)
  • Numerous midge species, several flies, and a mite can co-opt the California sagebrush DNA to create a unique home and food for their larvae in the form of a gall
  • Artemisia species have a long history of use in traditional medicine (Dogra 2021)
    • Essential oils of Artemisia species and their aromatic compounds have been extensively studied for their antimicrobial, insecticidal, and antioxidant properties (Pandey 2017)
    • The 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was shared by Tu Youyou for her work in developing the drug Artemisinin, derived from A. annua, sweet wormwood, a traditional Chinese medicinal herb and now the worldwide standard for the treatment of malaria (Su 2015)
  • Artemisia is one of the largest genera in the Sunflower family, with around 400 species, many in North America
    • Well-known Artemisia species include
      • Mugwort (A douglasiana) – medicinal herb, also at Edgewood
      • Tarragon (A. dracunculus) – culinary herb
      • Wormwood (A. absinthium) – medicinal herb and an ingredient in the notorious alcoholic drink absinthe

At Edgewood

  • Found in coastal scrub and open woodlands
  • Flowers August – November

See General References

Specific References

Encyclopædia Britannica. 2020. Artemis. Britannica.

Artemisia californica. Plants of Upper Newport Bay. Compiled by Robert De Ruff. Natural History of Orange County, California and Nearby Places. Peter J. Bryant (Ed.). School of Biological Sciences, University of California, Irvine.

California sage brush (Artemisia californica). 2022. The Kumeyaay Garden. University of San Diego, California.

Casey, A. and R. Wynia. 2010, Sept. Culturally significant plants. Manhattan, Kansas.

Hauser, A.S. 2006. Artemisia californica. Fire Effects Information System. United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory.

Irving, J.C. 2015, Oct. 10. The Greek epigraphic evidence for healer women in the Greek world. Doctoral thesis. Department of Ancient History, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia.

Russo, R. 2006. Field Guide to Plant Galls of California and Other Western States. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California.

U.S. Forest Service. Wind and water pollination. Forest Service. United States Department of Agriculture.

Young-Mathews, A. 2020. California sagebrush Artemisia californica Less. Plant Guide. United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Plant Materials Center, Lockeford, California.