Just as much as tumbleweeds and dusty boots, sagebrush is a symbol of the American West. Of the five species of sagebrush, the one most adapted to the basaltic and granitic terrain of eastern Washington is the A. tridentata ssp. xericensis, often referred to as Foothill Big Sagebrush.
This fragrant bush supports an entire ecosystem. It provides life-sustaining food and shelter for insects, which feed birds, reptiles, and smaller mammals. Chemical differences in each bush affect the taste, making it bitter, and therefore not all animals will eat from every bush. However, in winter months large animals such as deer can hardly afford to be finicky eaters. They use their hooves to knock off ice and snow, allowing other animals to eat the plants leaves. Domesticated livestock also graze on sagebrush.
Native Americans had many uses for sagebrush. A tea brewed from its leaves was popular, and the wood was used for fires. The bark comes apart like string, perfect for making rope and crafting baskets. In addition to practical uses, there were also many medicinal uses. The leaves contain camphor, an excellent treatment for cold symptoms. Moist sagebrush leaves were also made into compresses and used to reduce the swelling of bruises.
At least 350 plant and animal species, such as the sage grouse, depend on sagebrush for their survival. Severe changes over the last 100 years have jeopardized the sagebrush ecosystem. The largest impact has come from the adaptation of land for farming and livestock overgrazing. The planting of aggressive foreign plant species, such as the Russian olive tree, and devastating wildfires have also contributed to the alterations in sagebrush growth and their ecosystems throughout the West. Some western states such as Oregon therefore have introduced habitat conservation programs. It's hoped these programs will protect and sustain sagebrush, preserving this important ecosystem.