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Maintaining Your New California Garden: Life-friendly Fall Pruning

  Mother Nature's Backyard in November: illustrating life-friendly fall pruning. Late fall and early winter are important prun...

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Plant of the Month (November) : California Sagebrush - Artemisia californica

California Sagebrush (Artemisia californica) in Mother Nature's Backyard

It’s fall pruning time and our garden is perfumed by plants recently pruned.  Among our favorites is the California Sagebrush, Artemisia californica.  More than any other, the scent of California Sagebrush spells ‘California’ for many local residents.  You can grow this plant – and have trimmings for garden crafts and cooking – if you’re fortunate enough to live in the lowlands of Central and Southern California.

California Sagebrush is endemic (limited in range) to California from Contra Costa County to northern Baja California, Mexico, its range being limited by low winter temperatures.   It also grows on the Channel Islands, located just off the California Coast.   A plant of lower elevations (less that 2000 ft; more often less than 1000 ft elevation) Artemisia californica is an important member of California’s  Coastal Sage Scrub plant community.   It is also found in the Coastal Strand and lower elevation Chaparral communities, but it’s an indicator species for Coastal Sage Scrub (CSS).

California Sagebrush is best categorized as a sub-shrub – a plant with stems that are woody at the base and herbaceous near the tips.   A number of ‘shrubs’ of the CSS are, like Sagebrush, sub-shrubs.  They grow quickly, becoming established in a year or two at most.   Establishing quickly is advantageous in our climate, which is unpredictable at best. 

At maturity, Artemisia californica  can be as much as 4-5 ft. tall and 4-6 ft. wide.   Like many fast-growing native shrubs, it’s not particularly long-lived; even in nature, 25-30 years is ‘old’ for this species.    In the wilds, fire plays an important role in the growth and development of Sagebrush communities.  Some scientists believe this species needs regular fires, at intervals of perhaps 20-30 years, to ‘clear out the old brush’ and allow it to re-establish.  The fire interval is likely important; areas with more frequent fires do not seem to support Artemisia regeneration.
Young California Sagebrush in the Native Plant Garden at
Madrona Marsh Nature Center

Sagebrush plants have many stems from a woody central root crown (see above).  The stems are slender and wand-like – an attractive addition to the water-wise garden.   In nature, plants may look rounded – almost manicured – due to being ‘pruned’ by wild animals like deer and rabbits.  The plants aren’t the tastiest thing around – but they’re better than nothing!

Many features equip California Sagebrush for life in our mediterranean climate.  They have relatively shallow and fibrous roots, allowing them to utilize  soil moisture efficiently.  The roots also help bind the soil, a characteristic useful in hilly gardens and restoration sites.   California Sagebrush produces two sets of leaves each year: a larger, greener set in winter/spring and a smaller, grayer set on side branches in summer (see photo below).   This is also a common adaptation in plants from mediterranean climates.   The summer leaves are very drought tolerant.  They may appear shriveled and dead, but rehydrate and green up quickly with a summer moisture.
Wet-season (l) and dry-season foliage, Artemisia californica
Flower 'heads' of Artemisia californica (California Sagebrush)
The flowers of California Sagebrush are understated (see photo above).  They are small, green-gold and resemble little bells along the ends of branches.  If you look closely, you will realize that the ‘flowers’ are actually flower heads, typical of the Sunflower family (Asteraceae).  Plants can flower at any time, but summer through fall is typical in local gardens.   Flowers are primarily wind pollinated, so they don’t need to be particularly showy.  They produce many seeds, which also are wind-distributed (if not eaten first by birds).

California Sagebrush is easy to grow in just about any local soil.  It thrives in full sun to light shade and is very drought tolerant.  It is moderately salt-tolerant, but freezing winters will kill it.   It gets by fine with no summer water, but looks better if watered occasionally, when the soil becomes dry.  You don’t need to worry about fertilizing your California Sagebrush – it’ll do fine without any soil amendments.   
Two-year old Artemisia californica after fall pruning

Plants look better if pruned in the fall (remember the deer and other browsers).  We like to prune when plants are beginning to leaf out in October.  At that time you can clip with confidence, knowing you won’t harm the plant.   You can prune  Sagebrush fairly heavily – just be sure to leave 4-5 sets of new leaves/branches on each stem (see photo above).   It’s  important to prune young plants – even in the year after planting.  A well-pruned plant will be lush and full; you will need to prune it less as the years go by.   You can also tip-prune (pinch off) the growing branches in spring to achieve greater fullness.
California Sagebrush propagated by cuttings


California Sagebrush can be propagated from cuttings.  We’ve had best success in June or July, with semi-softwood cuttings 6-8 inches long (see photo above).

Some gardeners use Artemisia californica as a temporary filler plant, providing cover while slower-growing shrubs mature.  This is a good use, but there’s so much more to recommend this plant.  It’s a wonderful habitat shrub, providing cover and even nest sites for birds, lizards and other small creatures.  Many of these same creatures also eat the seeds.   It’s an excellent choice on slopes and other ‘hard to water’ areas, where it provides hardy habitat.    The only drawback is that this species is not fire-retardant – particular if left un-watered.  If you live in fire prone areas, plant it away from structures and give it some summer water.  Gardeners will also find that few plants grow beneath Sagebrush.  Whether because of shade or chemicals produced by the plant, the reason is unclear.
California Sagebrush in Spring

California Sagebrush in Fall (feathery wands at the back)
We love the look of its feathery foliage, which adds a touch of filmy mystery to spring and fall gardens (see above).  It’s color and shape provide just the right contrast to other local plants like Buckwheats and Sages (Salvias).  It is a ‘must have’ in any garden that features our beautiful locally native plants.   If you like the plant, but would prefer a lower growing or smaller form, the cultivars ‘Montara’ and ‘Canyon Gray’ provide nice alternatives.  ‘Montara’ is smaller than the species; ‘Canyon Gray’ is a low-growing form that makes a great groundcover (see below).

Artemisia californica 'Canyon Gray'

But one of the best reasons to plant Artemisia californica is its aroma.  The scent is like no other – pungent, clean and oh so California.  We’ve heard it called ‘Cowboy Cologne’ and ‘Cowboy Deodorant’, harking back to days when cowboys encountered this aromatic shrub.    You smell it on a warm day, and when you brush against it.   And you can use it to make potpourri, seasoned vinegars and as a seasoning, adding zing to stews, soups and more.    Both sets of leaves are aromatic, and can be used (fresh or dried) for cooking and crafts.  A wand of Artemisia adds a special touch to flower arrangements; a bundle of dried stems makes a good natural room freshener (we suggest putting it in a cloth bag to prevent a mess).   More on making potpourri later this month (November 2013). 

The unique scent of California Sagebrush is due to a whole palette of plant chemicals.  While produced to discourage herbivores, protect against infection and help the plant burn better, these chemicals produce the signature fragrance that we think of as ‘Artemisia californica scent’.  Native Californians used this plant extensively as a ceremonial and medicinal plant.   The plant was often used in ceremonies for life transitions – and for ritual purification.   Leaves were rubbed on the bodies of hunters to disguise their scent.  Tea made from leaves was used to treat colds, fevers and to wash wounds.   Pounded leaves were used to disinfect cuts and were also chewed or smoked for cold symptoms.   And branches were hung up to freshen the air.    The leaves are also purported to drive away fleas (early settlers put them in their beds for this purpose).   What an amazing plant!

For a gardening information sheet and more pictures of this plant see: http://nativeplantscsudh.blogspot.com/p/gallery-of-native-plants.html


We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to: mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com


  1. Love this posting. I am a huge fan of our native sagebrush, as are the quail and so many others. The silvery color, delicate fronds, scent, and movement in the wind, all combine to make this one of my favorites. It is too often overlooked.

    Thanks for a wonderful post.