HAPPENINGS - October 2005
Shades of Autumn
by Damian Fagan
October, the La Sal Mountains become a mosaic of color:
aspen gold, burnt oak and red rose. Gone are the greens
of summer as chlorophyll pigments break down due to
the reduced light levels. Though these color changes
mark the transition of seasons at higher elevations,
the canyons and high desert still sport an abundance
of color driven by flower power.
Three of the area’s shrubs – sagebrush, rabbitbrush and
snakeweed - dominate the desert color scheme with their profusion
of flowers. Artemesia tridentata or big sagebrush covers many acres
in southern Utah, as well as throughout the West. Named for its size
(BIG) and 3-toothed leaves (tridentata), this silver-green shrub
sends up clusters of greenish flowers that add a subtle grace to
the desert landscape. Perhaps more impressive is the way the plants
perfume the air after a cold, autumn rain. This aromatic event heralds
the high desert and invites one to experience a true Western phenomenon.
Though sagebrush grows in fertile soils throughout the area, too
much rain will cause the roots to rot and the plant to die. It seems
ironic that overwatering a desert plant would attribute to its demise.
“All the better” some might say, for these individuals do not appreciate
the sage’s ragged bark, irregular form and excessive pollen production
that triggers their hay fever reaction. But to many species of wildlife - including
deer, pronghorn and grouse - sagebrush is an important food source and offers
protective cover from predators.
Another shrub that offers protective cover for wildlife, is rubber
rabbitbrush or Eriacemeria nauseosus. The massive golden yellow blooms
attract a variety of insect pollinators, and the tall spreading habit
of the plant provides cover for jackrabbits, ground squirrels and
small passerines foraging on the ground. Though the leaves are slightly
toxic and make livestock nauseous (nauseosus) the plant is also a
source of rubber.
The plant’s milky latex contains a high-quality rubber compound,
chrysil. Unlike the rubber tree from Asia, our native rabbitbrush
does not produce commercially sustainable quantities to warrant extensive
plantations. However, many Native Americans once took advantage of
the plant’s brilliant flowers to create a yellow dye, and to
chew or brew some tea from the leaves and twigs to treat colds and
coughs. Even the snowball white insect galls that infest certain
plants were harvested to treat tooth or stomach pains.
Although snakeweed (Gutierrezia sarothae) may have been used to treat
snakebite, the plant’s other common name – snakebroom – reveals
another historical use of the plant. When collected, this low-growing
shrub’s numerous stems could be clustered together and tied
off to make a cabin-cleaning broom.
Unlike sagebrush, which indicates fertile soils, the presence of
snakeweed indicates disturbed sites. Overgrazing of the fragile desert
grassland has allowed snakeweed to proliferate, as livestock also
avoids it. The resinous stems have ignited many a campfire; hence,
another common name for this shrub is matchweed.
Though autumn’s glory may be shimmering high up in the mountains,
one can not overlook the Canyonlands for color in October. Though
these three shrubs are often disregarded because of their “weedy” growth,
their blossoms signal the end of summer and the transition into the
colorful shades of autumn.