California Sagebrush

Artemisia californica

tall brush leaves

California sagebrush, or coastal sagebrush (Artemisia californica), like many plants in the coastal sage scrub, has adapted to our summer drought by having two growth forms. In the winter and spring, when seasonal water is available, the gray-green leaves are long, tender and feathery. Plants are lush, and grow rapidly. During the hot dry summer months, spring leaves wilt and are replaced by small, tough leaves, Growth slows or stops, transpiration is reduced and the plant may look dead or dying. Under prolonged drought, leaves may be shed entirely.

The pungent aroma of sage brush contributes to the characteristic fragrance of coastal scrub sage. When hunting, Kumeyaay would rub themselves with sagebrush to disguise their human odor.

Other Common Names:

Coastal sagebrush

Description 2,4,5,25,26,59

California sagebrush is a much-branched, draught-deciduous shrub, 2-5 feet (0.5-1.5 m) tall.

The gray-green leaves are pinnately divided into 2-4 narrow segments with margins rolled under. There are two types of leaves: winter-spring leaves are 1½-2½ inches (3.8-6.4 cm) long, summer leaves are thicker and shorter.6 All leaves are strongly aromatic.

Flower heads are greenish and inconspicuous, composed of tubular or somewhat bilateral disk florets. Each flower head consists of up to10 female disk florets around the edge and about 35 bisexual florets in the center; 15-30 small flower heads hang along the terminal portion of the stems. Flowers are wind pollinated and occur primarily during August-December1.

Seeds are numerous and small,1/32-2/32 inches, (0.8-1.5 mm). The pappus is lacking, but seeds are still  primarily wind-dispersed.5

green bundled leaf pods
dried out leaves
plant arm with many string-like leaves

Distribution

California sagebrush is endemic to California and northern Baja California5 below 3000 feet (900 m) elevation.1,7,8 It is often a dominant species in coastal sage scrub and also occurs in openings of the chaparral5 and occasionally in the coastal strand.

California sagebrush is widely distributed in the Reserve and is often seen and smelled from the trails.

ariel view of the different parts of the conservancy

Classification

California sagebrush is a dicot angiosperm in the sunflower family, the Asteraceae.2,11 This is the largest family of vascular plants in the Northern Hemisphere.143 “Flowers” of Asteraceae are made up of one or both of two types of flowers (florets): symmetrical disk florets and strapped-shaped ray florets. These are crowded onto a common base (receptacle), and together are often assumed to be a single flower, which we call a flower head 11,44,49

Other familiar Asteraceae that occur in the Reserve include bush sunflower (Encelia californica), goldenbush (Isocoma menziesii), and coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis).

The genus Artemisia species have inconspicuous flowers; ray florets are absent2. Other Artemisia species in the Reserve includewild tarragon (A. dracunculus),  California mugwort (A. douglasiana), and Palmer’s sagewort (A. palmeri).48

Jepson eFlora Taxon Page
dried out leaves, plant arms extending
red and orange bulbs on a plant branch

Ecology

Like many species of the coastal sage scrub, California sagebrush is adapted to summer drought by becoming dormant or semi-dormant during dry months. Winter-spring leaves are feathery and thin and support high rates of photosynthesis; consequently they also have high rates of water loss. As summer drought sets in, spring leaves wither and a second set of smaller, thicker leaves is produced, resulting in reduced water loss, but much slower growth. 5,6,34 Leaves may also have the ability to wilt in the absence of water and to recover quickly with rain.13 Roots are fibrous and shallow, able to quickly and efficiently absorb moisture, facilitating rapid rehydration and growth as winter rains resume.5,6,13

California sagebrush is fire adapted. Rootstocks resprout after low to moderate fire. Seeds may remain dormant for several years and resprouting may be enhanced by fire conditions.5

The function of aromatic compounds (terpines) in the leaves is uncertain, but there are several theories:

Terpines released from leaves may prevent germination of seeds below the plant, reducing competition (allelopathy).5,14

Terpines are unpalatable and may reduce grazing.5,14

Terpines are highly flammable and may help a fire to move quickly without damaging the root stock..13

dried out bush
green string-like plant
green brush on a trail

Human Uses

In coastal Southern California, Native Americans used California sagebrush as a soothing medicine for poison oak,15 ant bites and measles,16 and as a tea for general illnes.16 Wood was used for tools and construction.15,17 The leaves were dried and smoked as tobacco,16 and the plant was used in a variety of ceremonies.15,17 Kumeyaay Indians rubbed themselves with sagebrush to disguise their odor when hunting.100 Although seeds were occasionally used for flour,18,34 food did not appear to be a major use.

Early miners are said to have used sagebrush to repell fleas,34 and Hispanics have used sagebrush twigs in sneakers to cure athlete’s foot.100

close up of plant arms with seed pods on it
large bush
seed pod arms extending from brush

Interesting Facts

California sagebrush is not a true sage; true sages are in the genus Salvia.11

Native bees use California sagebrush debris for nesting materials.

The main vegetation type for California sagebrush, coastal sage scrub, is threatened by development. The U.S. Forest Service has estimated as little as 10% of the original coastal sage scrub vegetation still remains.5,14 California sagebrush is one of the plants propagated in the SELC nursery and used for revegetation projects in the Reserve.

close up of seed pods hanging from branch
California Sagebrush

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