California Sagebrush

California Sagebrush © DSchiel

Artemisia californica

Description (Jepson,

  • Eudicotyledon
    • Eudicots are a major lineage of flowering plants; see family for general characteristics
  • Sunflower Family (Asteraceae)
  • Drought-tolerant evergreen shrub
  • Many-branched; stems slender and flexible
  • Leaves
    • Gray-green, with glandular (resin-filled) hairs
    • Threadlike; some deeply lobed
    • Margins curled under
    • Aromatic
  • Flowers
    • Inflorescence (flower arrangement) of nodding flower heads along leafy branch ends
    • Each disciform flower 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 very small, resinous seed, primarily wind dispersed
  • Height to 8 ft.


  • 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)

  • Nesting habitat for many birds; preferred habitat of the threatened California gnatcatcher (Polioptila californica)
  • Provides resources for communities of reptiles, small mammals, and numerous insects
  • Considered one of the most medicinally valuable plants for Native people and European settlers
    • 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 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); perhaps also because the branches could be gathered together and used as a brush
Gall © DSchiel


  • Most important and widely distributed plant in the coastal sage scrub or “soft chaparral” community
  • Leaves are adapted to dry, hot summers of our Mediterrean 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
  • 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
  • Some other plant species of interest within the genus Artemisia include:
    • Mugwort (A. douglasiana) – medicinal herb, which also grows at Edgewood
    • Tarragon (A. drancunculus) – culinary herb
    • Wormwood (A. absinthium) -medicinal herb, an ingredient in the notorious alcoholic drink absinthe
  • 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
    • Look for white, woolly galls along the stems made by the sagebrush gall midge (Rhopalomyia floccosa) frequently seen at Edgewood

At Edgewood

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

See General References

Specific References

Artemis. 2020. Encyclopedia Britannica.

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

Casey, A. and Wynia, R. 2010, Sept. Culturally Significant Plants. Manhattan, Kansas.

Hauser, A.S. 2006. Artemisia californica. Fire Effects Information System. U.S. 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.

Summary of California Sagebrush and Its Traditional Use. The Kumeyaay Garden. University of San Diego, California, Department of Biology.

Young-Mathews, A. 2020. Plant Guide: California sagebrush (Artemisia californica Less.). U.S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service. Plant Materials Center, Lockeford, California.