flower gardening

What Colour is Big Sagebrush?

Great Basin Sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata), a member of the aster family, rolls across the hills of my country.

You could say that where it is home so am I.

Not just the blue square, where my house sits in a glacial valley, but everywhere that’s green on that map.

A great place to hunker down in a summer rain and keep from being buffeted by the ocean falling from the sky.

Now, here’s what wikipedia says about this shrub that gives me a home:

Big sagebrush is a coarse, many-branched, pale-grey shrub with yellow flowers and silvery-grey foliage, which is generally 0.5–3 m tall.

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Centre at the University Texas describes it like this:

Big sagebrush or Great Basin sagebrush is an evergreen shrub, 1 1/2-9 ft. tall, with a gnarled spread somewhat less than its height. It may have a short trunk or be branched from the base. Small, velvety, silvery leaves have a sweet, pungent aroma and, en masse, give a bluish-gray effect.

Well, this is all a lesson in not believing what you read and to look at the world itself. Have a look at some Big Sagebrush, on this rainy day after a long spell of heat.

Is that “silvery”? Is the image below silvery-grey?

What about this one, in May a couple years back, black bear and all?


Or this, maybe?


So far, we’ve had a complex mix of varied shades of blue, green, red, yellow, pink. But here (below) we are in my home valley, the Similkameen. Maybe she’ll be grey there?

Nope. That’s not silvery grey, either. Ah, but on a bright, dry season day, in what a colonial calendar would call “September”:

Whew, at last! Grey and silver and the whole works. The thing is, this shrub changes colour in an intimate relationship with heat, water and the the density of moisture in the air. It’s “colour” is an indication of the state of the environment, not the particular “colour” of the plant (or of the environment). Look how the colour of the big sagebrush and the bunchgrass between it…

… match.

It’s not even the plant’s dead stalks that are silver.

Even the dead seed sprays in the late season image below (behind the show-off of a Chinese elm) are pink, though, not silver.

The leaves, which use their hairs to capture a veil of water vapour, actually bend light. Effectively, they vanish in plain sight. Instead of seeing the leaf at a distance, once sees the surroundings. It is only up close that the leaves reveal themselves. In June, though, this trickster aster joins her even showier aster sister, Douglas’s Aster (Symphyotrichum subspicatus)…

This is the pink of her seed sprays below:

When one wants to classify such a plant, that is the quick read of an entire environment, to a simplified “scientific” code of colours, one is going to ensure that no-one sees the plant again, or that it is not a plant but a landscape. Let’s make a pact, eh, not to say what colour it is ever again, but to describe instead the conditions it reveals. The same, of course, could be said of that elm, and of the early-season red twigs of Siya?.

Ah, perhaps you missed her in all that sagebrush! Here:

In the longest days of the year, her bark darkens, dusted with silver, and this colour moves into her berries. You’ve seen the colour above already, though. It’s in the asters I showed you and in the sage sprays. As the year progresses, these colours move from plant to plant in a pattern that can be read with far more precision than anything in a book of scientific nomenclature. It would take an encyclopedia to record what one can read from sagebrush (or aster or siya? and so on) in an instant. The argument could be made that books are depositories of memory, and thus invaluable. Indeed, they are, but they are only as good as what we put into them, and this …

Big sagebrush is a coarse, many-branched, pale-grey shrub with yellow flowers and silvery-grey foliage, which is generally 0.5–3 m tall.

… is not it. And we haven’t even talked about how these colours push through the seasonal round of arrow-leafed balsam root …


… or snow buckwheat.


Or milkweed.

Or elder.

And so on, for dozens more signature species. In the end, it’s not the plant that displays a colour but the colour that displays a mood of the landscape, manifesting itself across what Western scientific traditions consider impermeable species boundaries. If there is a drive to put an end to settler colonialism, it starts here, by being naked humans on the land and being guided.

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