Shrubs of the Great Basin
A Natural History
Publication Year: 1987
Published by: University of Nevada Press
Title Page, Copyright, Dedication
NO ONE can write an eclectic work such as this without recognizing that, to a great extent, only a small portion of it represents what can be said to be, by any stretch of the imagination, an original contribution by the author. Consequently, this volume represents the distilled experiences of a plethora of people--field-trip companions, my colleagues here in the Great Basin...
The Great Basin
JOHN C. FRÉMONT, the explorer, coined the name Great Basin for that vast series of north-south, parallel mountain ranges and basins extending from the Wasatch Range in Utah to the Sierra Nevada of Nevada and California. Northward the boundary lies along the Snake River drainage area, including much of southeastern Oregon. On the west the boundary follows the crest of...
SHRUBS IN THE GREAT BASIN
THE FIRST SHRUBS probably appeared on the earth about 400 million years ago, during the era that geologists call the Paleozoic. Calling these first land plants shrubs is certainly a very liberal use of that word, for they only remotely resembled most of those found today. They were, in fact, only indirect ancestors, since none had flowers and all were structurally quite ...
CUPRESSACEAE: Cypress Family
IT IS DIFFICULT to visualize the mountains of the Great Basin without also thinking of the apparently limitless expanse of pinyon~juniper woodlands which cover much of their topography. However, far above the Utah juniper so abundantly present is another species of juniper, the common or dwarf juniper-called common because its distribution is truly worldwide in the ...
EPHEDRAEAE: Jointfir Family
IN GENERAL APPEARANCE, the ephedras are broom~ or rushlike shrubs up to I meter tall, with noticeably jointed and fluted stems. The leaves, which have evolved almost to the vanishing point, are represented by small, scale~ like structures opposite one another at each node. Some forms have three at each node. Photosynthesis is carried on by the green stems. Because of ...
BERBERIDACEAE: Barberry Family
UNFORTUNATELY, this opinion, expressed in 1892, turned out to be disas~ trously wrong-the barberry is indeed the alternate host for the wheat rust, just as the currant is the alternate host for the white pine blister rust. The Pacific Coast species, fortunately, are resistant to this pathogen. Millspaugh's erroneous conclusion is but one more instance of the need for students of...
FAGACEAE: Beech & Oak Family
OUR CHINQUAPIN GETS its common name from the close resemblance of its fruit burs to those of the eastern chinquapin, Castanea pumila. It is, in fact, a close relative, since both belong to the oak or beech family, Fagaceae. The bush chinquapin just barely gets into the Great Basin on the west, along the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada and in southern Oregon. It is ...
BETULACEAE: Birch Family
LIKE MOST of its cousins the world over, our mountain alder frequents waterways in the mountains throughout the Great Basin. Its roots help bind the banks together. Its shade provides a comfortable habitat for those ferns and wildflowers which prefer a moist environment. Ordinarily the mountain alder varies between 2 and 3 meters high, but on rare occasions it may ...
CHENOPODIACEAE: Goosefoot Family
ALSO KNOWN AS bush pickleweed and Kern greasewood, the iodine bush gets its name from the dark brown stain left by crushed stems. It is a diffusely branched, erect shrub between 30 centimeters and 1 meter high. The branchlets are green and jointed, like a row of miniature, succulent pickles. The leaves are reduced to mere triangular scales. Iodine bush is found on ...
THE FOUR-WINGED SALTBUSH is the most widely distributed and abundant saltbush in the Southwest. It is found from South Dakota to Texas and west to the arid portions of California, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, and Washington. In addition, it extends down into Mexico and Baja California. It is found from sea level in California to 8,500 feet in the mountains of ...
THREE SHRUBS ARE especially characteristic of the Great Basin-sage brush, rabbitbrush, and shadscale. Of these three, shadscale is capable of growing in the driest locations and is truly a desert plant. I really believe that Mark Twain's characterization of the sagebrush would have been better applied to the shadscale, though perhaps "the fag end of vegetable creation" ...
As THE TALLEST saltbush in the Great Basin, the Torrey occasionally attains heights of over 3 meters. It is distributed from the Mohave Desert and Owens Valley in California, to the Colorado River and Lake Mead area of southern Nevada, northward to extreme southwestern Utah and central and western Nevada. Several prominent stands of Torrey saltbush can be found ...
SALTSAGE IS A member of a complex of several related species of small stature found in heavy, alkaline, clay soils of valley flats in the eastern Great Basin. It is particularly abundant in the Lake Bonneville Basin in Utah. This entire complex, unlike the shadscale, four,winged, and Torrey salt, bushes, is only partly woody or subshrubby. Some individuals, in fact ...
ALONG WITH SAGEBRUSH, rabbitbrush, bitterbrush, and shadscale, win' terfat or whitesage has been the subject of numerous and intensive studies, this because of its considerable positive value for livestock. Dwight Billings in 1945, characterizing the plant associations of the Carson Desert region in western Nevada, noted that the pure stands of winterfat were abundant ...
THE MOST FAMOUS American botanist of the nineteenth century and one of the most influential protagonists of Darwin's evolutionary theory in this country was Asa Gray. A French botanist, Christian Moquin-Tandon, decided to honor Gray by naming this genus of Great Basin shrubs after him in I894. The common name of spiny hopsage is particularly appropriate, since ...
TO BE strictly accurate, red sage or green, gray, or desert molly, as K. americana is variously known, belongs to that group considered to be subshrubs. These are plants with woody bases and with tops which die back during the winter. If we were to include all the subshrubs which occur in the Great Basin, we would have at least four times the number of species in this book....
WHILE MANY A modem peregrinator in Nevada would consider Tom's comments not nearly opprobrious enough toward the "infernal prickly yarb," the truth is that without it our alkaline flats would be desolate, lifeless places indeed. Greasewood is able to grow in dense alkaline or saline soils that support little else in the way of shrubs. And, unlike many of our gray~green...
THE DESERT PLAYAS of the Great Basin are in many ways as hostile to higher plant life as the bleakest Antarctic landscape. Frequently there grows a thin stand of scraggly shrubs at the edge of and partly onto the larger playas. On examination, this almost always turns out to be the desert blite, S. torreyana. Neither heat nor lack of water is the barrier to colonization in ...
POLYGONACEAE: Buckwheat Family
ALMOST AS characteristic of the Great Basin as shadscale and sagebrush are the various species of wild buckwheat. Some of the latter are annual or perennial herbaceous plants, but many are woody, at least at the base. Some authorities call them subshrubs. If we were to discuss all these partially woody forms, we would have to consider perhaps thirty-five species within ...
Great Basin Buckwheat
THE GREAT BASIN buckwheat is the most common shrubby species of this genus found throughout the arid portions of the Great Basin. Sometimes known as the slender buckwheatbrush or Nuttall's buckwheat, it superficially resembles the rock buckwheat. However, the Great Basin buckwheat occupies a considerably wider amplitude of habitats, being found in large ...
As THE NAME implies, dry, rocky slopes and ridges are the habitat of the rock buckwheat. Another name for it, this one derived from the Latin spe~ cies name, is round~headed buckwheat. Rock buckwheat is a low shrub, rarely over 10 centimeters high, found abundantly in the sagebrush and pinyon~juniper communities throughout the Great Basin. ...
TAMARICACEAE: Tamarisk Family
THE GENUS Tamarix occurs naturally from western Europe and the Medi, terranean to North Africa, northeastern China, India, and Japan. The number of species is variously estimated to be between fifty and ninety. Ber, nard R. Baum of the Plant Research Institute in Ottawa, Canada, wrote a monograph on the group a few years ago that recognized fifty-four species....
SALICACEAE: Willow Family
THE GREAT BASIN INDIANS as well as the Romans were familiar with the manifold uses of willow. Its supple branches, when green, could readily be woven into baskets and other useful items. Of all our willows, the coyote willow is the best for such purposes, for its slender, straight, reddish branches-up to several meters in length-are ideally suited to the artisan....
BRASSICACEAE: Mustard Family
ALTHOUGH MANY MEMBERS of the mustard family are denizens of our deserts and mountains, the bush peppergrass is the only significant woody species here. In fact, only a few members of the genus to which it belongs are shrubs, and many are annuals which complete their life cycle within only a few weeks during spring in the desert. Actually, only the basal parts of ...
ERICACEAE: Heath Family
NEARLY AS symbolic of the West as the sagebrush is the manzanita. The eastern mountains from New England to the Smokies have their characteristic rhododendrons, mountain laurels, and azaleas. Their counterparts in the West, which also happen to belong to the same family, are the various species of manzanita - dominating much of our so-called chaparral vegetation ...
EVEN IN THE New Jersey pine barrens, blueberries never really get larger than grapes, much less the size of baseballs, but the memory of their delectable taste undoubtedly caused them to seem bigger than they were! For the most part, our soils in the Great Basin are far too alkaline to allow blueberries to grow, let alone flourish. Consequently, our western blueberry is...
GROSSULARIACEAE: Current & Gooseberry Family
Western Golden Currant
THE WESTERN GOLDEN CURRANT is far and away the most attractive of our native species of currant or gooseberry. It is highly regarded, not only for its showy yellow flowers produced in spring but also for its relatively sweet, juicy orange berries. Some forms produce black or red berries. Howard McMinn in his book An Illustrated Manual of California Shrubs tells of some ...
DRY, OPEN SLOPES throughout the Great Basin favor the development of a shrub community which frequently includes one or more species of currant or gooseberry. One of the most widespread of these is the wax currant, which ranges from British Columbia to southern California and east to the Rocky Mountains. From the lower mountain slopes it frequently extends ...
OF THE SEVERAL gooseberries and currants common in the Great Basin, the plateau gooseberry appears to be capable of growing on the driest sites. It is common on dry mountain slopes, especially in sagebrush areas. It ranges north to Oregon, east to Utah and Arizona, and, on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, south as far as the White Mountains....
ROSACEAE: Rose Family
OUR WESTERN SERVICEBERRY is consistent only in its extremely variable nature, perhaps more so than any other shrub we have. Its variability includes not only a number of differences in leaf and stem form but a large array of physiological types as well, which appear to be adapted to an assortment of habitats. Western serviceberry can be found in habitats ranging ...
ALTHOUGH CONSIDERED by some to be only a variant of the curlleaf mountain, mahogany, C. ledifolius, a species which is covered in Lanner's Trees of the Great Basin in this series, the littleleaf mountain, mahogany in its usual form is nevertheless very distinctive and easy to separate from its larger and commoner relative. Typically only I or 2 meters tall, the littleleaf is ...
EITHER COMMON NAME, fern bush or desert sweet, is certainly appropriate for Chamaebatiaria, since its leaves are like minute fern fronds and the whole plant has a pleasant fragrance. The leaves, which are only 2 to 5 millimeters long, are clustered near the ends of the twigs in whorls which resemble a miniature cycad. The symmetrical design of the fern bush is in harmony ...
THE BLACKBRUSH or, as it is sometimes called, the burrobrush gets its common name from the older stems, which have a rough, black bark. On younger stems the bark is ashy gray. A characteristic feature of the black brush is its pattern of very intricate branches, with the branchlets usually two at a node, opposite each other. Each successive pair of branchlets tend ...
THE CLIFFROSE, at first glance, somewhat resembles the common bitter, brush. A closer look, however, reveals a number of differences. The 6, to 14-millimetedong leaves have five to seven narrow lobes, rather than being wedge,shaped and three, lobed at the end as in bitterbrush. The leaves of both species are whitish,pubescent beneath. Additionally, cliffrose leaves ...
THE CREAM~WHITE CLUSTERS of flowers borne on curved branches ac~ count for the common name of this shrub. Two other frequent names are creambush and rock~spiraea. The latter name is particularly appropriate for our Great Basin examples, since it connotes the usual rocky ledge and cliff habitat of this species. Spiraea is also a logical name, since ocean spray ...
THE WESTERN DWARF NINEBARK, like its eastern counterpart, is easily recognized by its bark-which tends to peel off in narrow strips, exposing the lighter bark beneath. Within the Great Basin it is most easily confused with the wax currant, which has leaves of similar size and shape. However, the latter does not have bark which peels in the fashion of ninebark, and, of ...
WHILE IT IS somewhat hyperbolic to characterize our desert peach as capable of producing flaming roadsides, it is, without question, one of the most beautiful and probably the most underappreciated shrubs in the western Great Basin. It has also been called the desert wild almond, although one rarely hears that name now. The deep to light rose-colored or, rarely...
ANOTHER WESTERN mountain shrub which just barely makes it into the Great Basin is the bitter cherry, found on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada in several of the western counties of Nevada. Bitter cherry is an appropriate name, since all parts of this plant are extremely bitter-stems, leaves, and fruits. Skirting the Great Basin, it extends north into British ...
ALMOST AS apparent a part of the Great Basin as sagebrush is bitterbrush or antelope bitterbrush. By the pragmatically inclined, however, it is revered a great deal more than sagebrush because of its palatability for livestock and wildlife. Even the seed forms a major part of the fare of small animals. James Young and Raymond Evans, of the Agricultural Research Service at the ...
WHILE IT IS found throughout the Great Basin, the wild rose is hardly a plant of desert habitats, preferring rather moist situations along streams or in seepage areas, along fences, and in other protected spots. Of all our shrubs, this is the easiest for anyone to recognize. Like most species of wild and cultivated roses, our form has the conventional divided leaves, thorny...
FABACEAE: Pea Family
ONE OF THE MOST fragrant of our desert shrubs, with an odor which resembles that of some exotic member of the citrus family, is the smokebush. Known in older literature as Dalea polyadenia, the smokebush is most frequent in the Carson Desert region of the Great Basin. Its characteristic fragrance is the result of the secretion of volatile substances by the numerous ...
ELAEAGNACEAE: Oleaster Family
THE BERRIES referred to above were typically either serviceberries or the sour, reddish or golden yellow fruits of the buffaloberry-early settlers soon learned that the berries of both could be dried or made into a delectable jelly or jam. The silver buffaloberry is a shaggy~barked, thorny, deciduous shrub or small tree up to 6 meters tall. Both surfaces of the leaves are covered with...
CORNACEAE: Dogwood Family
ANOTHER COMMON NAME for the dogwood is red osier, and this is, perhaps, a better one since it connotes the very characteristic smooth, wand like, red stems. These are not evident during the summer, when the shrub is clothed with its bright green leaves, but once the leaves have been lost during the fall the color and form of the dogwood appear particularly ...
CELASTRACEAE: Bittersweet Family
THE SPINY GREASEBUSH is almost never a very conspicuous or dominant shrub in the Great Basin. Generally, it occurs in relatively small numbers on steep hillsides or in ravines, mixed with other shrubs such as rabbitbrush, green ephedra, and bitterbrush. It appears to prefer limestone areas, though this is not always the case-one notable stand near Virginia City, Nevada, ...
RHAMNACEAE: Buckthorn Family
INDIANS ONCE USED the leaves of C. velutinus as a substitute for tobacco, presumably a poor one, since it is not so used today. Other common names for tobacco brush include snowbrush, in reference to its soft mounds of white flowers in the spring; sticky laurel or varnish leaf ceanothus, because of the sticky, varnishlike coating on the leaves; and mountain balm, since ...
THE COFFEEBERRY or buckthorn is a member of a large genus of about one hundred species distributed primarily throughout the temperate and warm climates of the northern hemisphere. Perhaps the best known is the common buckthorn, R. cathartica, of the Old World. Found throughout much of Europe, North Africa, and northern Asia, this species produces berries ...
ACERACEAE: Maple Family
EAST OF THE Great Basin, the dwarf maple is known as the Rocky Mountain maple, and in northwestern Washington it is hardly dwarf, reaching a height of I2 meters. As we might expect-with their propensity for debating both major and minor differences-botanists have considered this taller form to be a separate species, but most expert opinion today regards it ...
ANACARDIACEAE: Sumac Family
A LIST OF the other common names of the squawbush is a good indicator of some of its more obvious characteristics: three,lobed sumac, polecat bush, skunkbush, squawberry, and lemonade sumac. As might be surmised from all this, the squawbush has a disagreeable odor, three-part leaves, and acid fruits. The name squawbush refers to its use by the Indians in basket making ...
SOLANACEAE: Tomato Family
Shockley's Desert Thorn
THERE ARE A fair number of desert thorn species in the American South, west, perhaps about ten or twelve, all of them shrubs. The uncertainty occurs because some disagreement exists about the validity of a few species. At any rate, the family to which they belong, the Solanaceae, commonly known as the nightshade family, has most of its members in the tropics; it has not ...
POLEMONIACEAE: Phlox Family
THE GREAT BASIN prickly phlox, sometimes known as granite-gilia, barely qualifies as a shrub, since it is woody only at the base, although other species in the genus outside of the Basin are more obviously woody. It occurs in a variety of habitats, but generally it is found in dry and rocky places, from 4,000 to 12,000 feet in elevation. Typically, it is low,growing, getting no ...
LAMIACEAE: Mint Family
I ONCE ASSUMED that Riders of the Purple Sage, by Zane Grey, referred to our desert or purple sage. To my chagrin, I later learned that this famous western author was simply guilty of a little artistic license in calling our common sagebrush, an entirely unrelated plant, purple sage. Purple sage is a true sage, since it belongs to the same genus as the cultivated Salvia used in the ...
CAPRIFOLIACEAE: Honeysuckle Family
THE TWINBERRY is another of our shrubs that just skirts the Great Basin. In California, it extends from sea level to 9,500 feet and occurs on the east, em slope of the Sierra Nevada. Twinberry extends north into Alaska, east across Canada to Quebec, and south through Colorado and Utah to New Mexico and Arizona and on into Mexico. Wherever it grows, it prefers ...
THERE IS, perhaps, more mythology surrounding the elderberry than any other native shrub of the Great Basin. The stories, which originated with those species native to Europe, extend back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. One tale has it that Judas hanged himself from an elder tree. However, this is pretty improbable, considering the typical size of an ...
THE SNOWBERRIES closely resemble their relatives, the twinberries. Like the twinberries, they may have their flowers borne in pairs. However, there is one easy way to distinguish them: twinberries always have red or black berries, while the snowberries have only white berries. When in flower, they can be separated by the fact that snowberries consistently have radially ...
ASTERACEAE: Aster Family
DWARF OR LOW SAGEBRUSH is much like big sagebrush in general appearance, but, as the name implies, it is much smaller, usually no taller than half a meter and typically much less. The easiest way to separate dwarf from big sagebrush is to look at the leaves-if they are more than three times longer than they are broad, the species is big sagebrush; if they are less than three ...
SILVER SAGEBRUSH, sometimes called hoary sagebrush, perhaps would be most easily mistaken at a distance for big sagebrush. The species name cana, meaning white or gray, refers to the distinctive silky, silvery appearance of the leaves. They generally have no lobes at the tip, as do those of big sage~ brush, and they are long and narrow-typically about 5 centimeters long ...
BUD SAGEBRUSH is a nearly ubiquitous companion of shadscale through, out the Great Basin. It should be no surprise, then, that it is adapted to much more arid conditions than are other shrubby sagebrush species. Its wide range accounts, perhaps, for some of its other common names-but, ton brush, budsage, spiny sagebrush, and spring sagebrush. Like the other ...
PROBABLY NO OTHER plant is so evocative of the Great Basin as big sage~ brush, at least to those of us who know and love the area. And we would hardly agree that the sagebrush is the "fag~end of vegetable creation"! Mark Twain's colorful condemnation is about as accurate as his description of iron doors flown as kites by street urchins with the aid of our frequent Washoe...
THERE ARE, perhaps, one hundred species of Brickellia distributed through the warmer regions of the United States south through Mexico and Central America to South America. Some are herbaceous rather than shrubby, and the only shrubby ones distributed well within the Great Basin are the littleleaf and the California brickellbushes. The oblong-leaf brickellbush occurs on ...
ALTHOUGH SAGEBRUSH is the official flower of Nevada, it was, perhaps, not the best choice, for the rabbitbrush, especially in the fall, is more apt to attract the attention of the casual traveler across the Great Basin. It is so ubiquitous that native Nevadans dependent on the land are likely to have a blind spot for it, except when they focus on its nuisance value. Not...
LIKE THE rubber rabbitbrush, which it much resembles, Parry's rabbitbrush has its branchlets covered with a whitish, feltlike pubescence. One major difference is that its flowers are borne in a spike like affair at the branchlet endings, rather than in a relatively flat-topped or globose cluster, as in the rubber rabbitbrush. Another, frequently conspicuous difference is that the ...
GREEN RABBITBRUSH is easily separated from rubber and Parry's rabbit~ brushes by its smooth, hairless, white~barked stems. Typically, it attains a height of less than a meter. Some forms, in fact, are so small that they resemble the snakeweed, but several differences are apparent to the careful observer. For one thing, the small forms of green rabbitbrush usually do not ...
SNAKE WEED or broom snakeweed is most commonly mistaken for a small rabbitbrush, especially when in bloom. However, it is easily distinguished by its numerous erect, slender stems, much thinner than those of rabbitbrush, and by its flowering heads, which have strap' shaped or ray flowers around the edge as well as tubular disk flowers in the center. Rabbitbrush has no ray ...
ALONG SANDY WASHES in the southern Great Basin there commonly grows a tall shrub which, on occasion, seems to be decorated with pearls. To some it is known as the desert pearl or pearlbush. These pearls are formed by pea,size clusters of papery, translucent bracts fused at the base into a woody affair which surrounds the female flowers. The narrow, often threadlike leaves on light tan stems are another distinguishing feature. On closer ex, ...
LIKE THE littleleaf horsebrush, the gray horsebrush occurs commonly throughout the Great Basin. Generally, although it is a plant of dry habitats, it is found in relatively less dry situations than the littleleaf. It is common in sagebrush, pinyon-juniper, and even ponderosa communities up to an elevation of 8,000 feet. Also, unlike the littleleaf, occasional dense stands of ...
ONE OF OUR MOST attractive desert shrubs when in flower is the littleleaf horsebrush - its flat~topped clusters of yellow flowers are particularly conspicuous, even when seen from a distance, from April through July. If we ever really get around to making use of our desert shrubs for landscaping, in order to conserve water, the littleleaf horsebrush would be an ideal ...
COMMON ON stabilized sand dunes or deep sand in the western Great Basin, the cotton horsebrush is our tallest example of the genus, reaching heights up to 2 meters. Characteristically, it has few branchlets on its long, wandlike, white stems. The very heavy, compact pubescence which covers the stems accounts for its common name. The first seasonal leaves are very ...
Indian Names for Great Basin Shrubs
About the Authors