Moab Happenings Archive
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Shades of Autumn
by Damian Fagan

In 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.







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