I remember as a child, going with my mom down to an area called “The Point”. The Point is a fishing spot used by the Shuswap nation of Esketemc for centuries. This fishing spot is along the Fraser River in the lowland grasslands that cover much of the Fraser Canyon.
My mother would take me here every June to pick the Sage plant that grew close to the Point. Being so young, I never knew the purpose of those afternoon trips to the arid grasslands. I always thought I just went to get baked in the hot June sun. I would get bored of picking sage within a half hour or so and begin hunting down the crickets that hopped around beneath the sage canopy. I had a lot of fun in pursuit of these big black insects until I actually caught one. I made it to catch a cricket and it latched on to my hand and wouldn’t let go no matter how hard I flung my hand around and screamed. To this day I have a cricket phobia. Memories like these are engrained in my head because my mother was teaching, me the way most First Nations cultures do: by example. The lesson that was being taught was the importance of the shrub Artemisia tridentata.
As I grew older and began to understand, I realized how important this plant is to First Nations people, the environment, and animals. Growing up I learned about the cultural uses of Artemisia tridentata, but it wasn’t until I attended university that I learned the scientific side of this plant and understand the cultural importance of it as well.
The shrub we were looking for was easy to find in the arid area. It stands well above any other plant in the grassland, standing up to as high as 2 meters tall. It’s also one of the only plants in the grassland to produce woody material. The bark is a dusty dark brown color, with some parts that peel off. The leaves of this plant are very light green and have three pointed “teeth” at the apex of the leaves. This leaf feature helped give the shrub its scientific name: Artemisia tridentata. The leaves also appear to always have a light coloured powder or dust on them, but this dusty look is created by very small hair extensions of the leaves called trichomes. By producing trichomes on the leaves, the sage shrub protects itself from the drought conditions experienced in the bunchgrass zones. Without trichomes the leaves would dry out, as a result of desiccation. I never took much interest in sage before, but now I find the plant fascinating because it defends itself without even moving.
I always questioned why we would go and pick sage during the one of the hottest months during the summer. My mom told me we had to pick them before they flower in late July to August. Like many other members of the Asteraceae family, Artemisia tridentata produces many small flowers. The flowers come out at the middle of July and make it hard to harvest the leaves by themselves. This is also a management practice to not disturb the reproductive structures of the sage plant. It was also important not to defoliate the shrub to the point where it wouldn’t be able to photosynthesize anymore. Artemisia tridentata is sensitive do disturbance and will respond in different ways depending on the type of disturbance.
A. tridentata faces different sources of disturbance and A. tridentata finds itself in a battle against several opponents. Sage faces grazing pressures, invasive species, and grazing pressure on the grassland battlefield. A. tridentata does well against grazing pressure. Sage is considered an increaser when faced against grazing ruminators. Its populations increase when the area is heavily grazed by cattle, this is due to the taste and scent of foliage of the shrub. Cows will select to eat the grasses before they will eat the sage plant. While the populations of grasses drop the numbers of A. tridentata rise. A. tridentata stands victorious against grazing.
Bromus tectorum (Cheatgrass) is a more formidable adversary against A. tridentata. B. tectorum is an annual invasive grass that will make its way onto the grassland battle field. The annual grass will set down deep roots every spring and soak up the spring moisture that is so important for A. tridentata’s survival. It is a war of attrition against B. tectorum. B. tectorum dies quickly, but it brings in back up: fire. B. tectorum produces lots of dry material even when it is still green. B. tectorum also produces thick stands of itself, so all of the fallen B. tectorum soldiers leave lots of dry organic material. The dry organic material will increase the risk of fire coming into the site. Once fire comes in, A. tridentata is considered a decreaser when B. tectorum and fire enters the grasslands. This is because sage is a slow growing perennial shrub compared to B. tectorum, which grows quickly from seeds and seedlings every year. Increased populations of B. tectorum will increase fire fuel every year and increase fire frequency which will cause A. tridentata populations to submit and let B. tectorum to take over and rule the grassland. B. tectorum will raise its tillers victoriously.
If A. tridentata’s battle is lost, this will present great challenges for ungulates that feed on it during the harsh winter months in the grasslands. I didn’t think that any animal would feed on A. tridentata because of its strong smell, but I have seen that some animals actually do feed on its foliage that it keeps through the winter while out hunting. I was glassing some fields looking for mule deer near Alkali Lake and to my surprise these deer were feeding on the foliage of the sage brush. Later in University, I learned that not only do mule deer browse the sage, but Big Horn Sheep also will feed on it in the winter. I found this odd because the volatile oils contained within the foliage of the bark can be poisonous if high amounts are consumed. But, these two ungulates are able to deal with the volatile oils by making the oils increase good bacteria in the intestinal tract the Mule Deer and Big Horn Sheep. Mule deer and Big Horn Sheep digestion is actually improved with the aid of the volatile oils in A. tridentate. A. tridentata is very important for in the grasslands because of the cover and food that it provides for the animals.
Hunting is a very important part of not only my life and without Artemisia tridentata hunting could be made much more difficult. Through hunting and university I have learned that Artemisia tridentata is an important plant to manage for. Proper management techniques need to be implemented to prevent invasive populations from growing and proper grazing habits would prevent A. tridentata from completely dominating the site. Grazing cattle in the early spring would increase survival rates of A. tridentata because the cow would choose sage’s adversary, B. tectorum, before A. tridentata. The early grazing would weaken the populations and growth rates of B. tectorum and give A. tridentata a better chance at being the victor on the grassland. Then the cattle could be taken off of the field later in the spring when the native grasses like Agropyon spicatum (Bluebunch Wheatgrass) begin to sprout and grow. A healthy balance of A. tridenta and native grasses, forbs, and shrubs can be attained through proper management measures.
Management of A. tridentata is very important not only to the animals, but to the people as well. Sage has been used by First Nations people for centuries. The terpenes contained throughout have many healing properties that have helped out First Nations people. These terpenes would cause blood clots to stop internal bleeding from injuries and bleeding in women after giving birth. The teas made from the foliage and twigs would also be used as an astringent to clean up cuts and infections. This plant has assisted in the survival of some First Nations tribes.
This plant has played a major role in my ancestors’ lives and my life as well. A. tridentata is entwined into First Nations culture as well. First Nations have burned the leaves of sage while praying and singing. The smoke produced by the sage leaves has a potent scent and is used to bring the prayers and songs up to the Creator. When somebody seeks assistance while going through rough times during life they often burn sage to ensure that the request for help reaches the creator. If the person comes out of the hard situation well, they will again burn sage and give thanks for the assistance received. It is also of Shuswap culture to leave something for the environment when harvesting resources. Sage is often left to give thanks for the item that was taken out of the environment. I will leave sage after I harvest an animal to give thanks to the animal for giving itself life up for my sustenance. I give thanks to the animal because it had a life and soul just like I do. I leave sage to let the creator and animal know that I am thankful and have respectful of them both.
Artemisia tridentata is tied into the environment and lives of animals and humans in many ways. The importance of this plant to the grasslands, to people, and animals should be understood. Like many other plants, it should be properly managed to keep populations healthy. Having this plant in the grassland increases biodiversity and helps many individuals out. Artemisia tridentata has a very intricate history with First Nations people and continues to play a big part in our cultures today.
Jacobson J. 1983. Insecticides, insect repellants, and attractants from arid/semiarid-land plants. http://scholar.googleusercontent.com/scholar?q=cache:aX_tVoZIoPQJ:scholar.google.com/+artemisia+tridentata+medicinal+uses&hl=en&as_sdt=0,5&as_vis=1. Accessed 2012.\