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Big Sagebrush

Scientific Name:
Artemisia tridentata
Native Name(s):
  1. Northern Paiute: sawábstuni (Kelly 1938); sawabi (Couture et al. 1986); sawabi (Fowler 1989); pah-eesh sah-wavvypah-h, pah-hoe-be; pah-wavvy, sah-wah-be, sah-wavvy (Train et al. 1957: 28-30)
  2. Klamath: Ghät (Coville 1897); bōl'-whē (Coville 1897)


Artemisia tridentata is a tall shrub with short branched woody trunks that grows on average about 1 m, but can grow up to 5 m tall. The leaves are wedge to fan-shaped, are usually 3-lobed at the tip, and have a very strong aromatic smell. Big sagebrush buds in June and flowers in fall.

Identification Tips

Artemisia tridentata is much larger than most sagebrush, growing up to 5 m tall depending on the environment. It has the distinctive 3 lobed leaves and tiny disk flowers. It also has the famous "sweet" sagebrush smell.

Starch Granules

Seeds from this species produces sparse amounts of starch. They are formed in amyloplasts (sheets) bounded by cell walls. Starch granules are less than 5 microns in length, square with irregular margins, a centric hila and thin, bent arms. 


Artemisia tridentata grows at and elevation of 800 to 1900 m in sandy to coarse gravelly soils, valleys, and benches.


This species grows from the central United States west and in New York and Massachusetts.


Artemisia tridentata was used in multiple ways by many different tribes. Although it was not consumed, various plant parts were used as medicine, shelter, clothing, and utilized for ceremonial purposes.

As medicine

Northern Paiute: “Deep cuts were washed with tea of sagebrush leaves.” (Kelly 1932:196) 

Northern Paiute: “There is a large series of cold remedies....Leaves of young sage and juniper were boiled, either separately or mixed.  The brewed leaves were used as a compress and tea drunk for colds, coughs, and sore throat.  It was especially good for children and infants.” (Kelly 1932:197)

Northern Paiute: “[In regards to sawabi (big sagebrush, Artemesia tridentata) as it was used for medicine] Sagebrush (sawabi) leaves are ground on the metate when the leaves are dried or green.  The ground leaves are mixed in cold water.  This makes a paste which is put over the body for a fever.  The leaves of the sagebrush are boiled and the water drunk for a cold or for diarrhea and a strong solution was used as an emetic. Sagebrush leaves are also ground and mixed with tobacco.  This is wet so it makes a paste.  This is applied to children for fever or put on swellings on adults or children...Small pieces of sagebrush are also stuffed into the nostrils for colds and headaches.  Sagebrush blossoms are dipped into water and then the hair is combed with the branch of blossoms when a person has fainting spells.  At the same time the person talks and tells the spirits that cause the fainting spells to stay far away "This makes the person think straight." (Fowler 1989:128)

Northern Paiute: “Artemisia tridentata is most commonly employed in the treatment of colds.  In many settlements the boiled green leaves are made into a hot tea for that purpose, although in some places...the leaves are eaten raw...The usual dose of the tea seems to be half-cupful taken several times a day....Again the proportion of the dried substance [the tops of the plants] may be only a pinch to a cup of water...For head colds the branches are burned on top of the stove and the fumes are inhaled...The green leaves may be mashed and applied as a poultice for chest colds... For cuts, wounds or sores the boiled leaves are made into an antisceptic wash...The steeped leaves can be applied as a wet dressing to promote healing of stubborn bullet wounds...or the decoction [boiled branches], used hot, makes a good wash or liniment for lumbago or muscular cramps...also as a foot bath for aching and swollen feet if continued for several hours...A rather novel employment occurs where the dried leaves are finely pulverized to serve as a sort of talcum powder for babies.” (Train et al. 1957:28-30) 

Pit River: “To cure toothache some sagebrush bark was chewed and mixed with deer manure to make a small pack (yapcisehiyi), which was placed on the jaw over the affected tooth and set afire…A similar pack was prepared and put over the knee joint to cure rheumatism.” (Garth 1953:141)

Pit River: “[In regards to the use of balls of sage bark, furze from wormwood, and such, 1/2-inch in diameter, placed on arm, leg, and set on fire, to cure rheumatism] Sagebrush bark used, ‘is man sick all time.’” (Voegelin 1942:235)

Northern Paiute: “[In regards to birth] The child was received into a small hole previously dug and filled with grass and sagebrush bark.” (Kelly 1932:158)

Northern Paiute: “[In regards to birth] Sometimes she pressed a moccasin to her abdomen and bound it there with sagebrush bark to assist in contraction.” (Kelly 1932:159)

As shelter

Northern Paiute: “Summer structures seems to have been of two principal types, the shade (haba') and the brush enclosure (dü'a-nobi; dü'a, round)…The sagebrush enclosure was even less formal than the shade, consisting of an unroofed circular enclosure bout chest high.  The single entrance was closed with a tule mat.” (Kelly 1932:105-106)

Northern Paiute: “[In regards to the sweat-house frame] Other frames I have examined are bound round with one or two willow widths…Formerly the covering was rye grass, sagebrush, willow, or possibly an old deerskin blanket.” (Kelly 1932:202)

Northern Paiute: “[In regards to making the winter house] A willow frame was built in a circle- 8 to 14 ft in diameter.  The frame was called maiwɔməsubi (maiwɔmə, to put up; subi, willow)…Tule mats (sigwatu) were made by drying tule (toi) [Typha latifolia] and putting them across four willow sticks evenly spaced...The fire was built on the ground in the middle of the floor space.  Greasewood was burned.  Sagebrush bark was used as a mattress.” (Fowler 1989:92)

Northern Paiute: “[In regards to the brush windbreak] A circular pile was made of sagebrush or other brush.  The walls of this were about 5 ft high…This was called hunino·bi…This may be built near the no·bi and used for cooking.” (Fowler 1989:95)

As clothing

Northern Paiute: “[In regards to children's clothing] They wore a badger-skin cap and "shoes and stockings," presumably leggings and moccasins, of sagebrush bark.” (Kelly 1932:108)

Northern Paiute: “In winter men wore rabbitskin or sagebrush blankets the same as those worn by women.” (Kelly 1932:108)

Northern Paiute: “Sagebrush moccasins (watsi'-moko'; watsi', sagebrush-bark, moko', moccasin, nowadays shoe) were worn when going after water.” (Kelly 1932:109)

Northern Paiute: “Sandals were not worn; in default of hide, a moccasin was twined of tule or of sagebrush bark.  Charlie Washo could remember old people who wore "tule shoes," but sagebrush bark seems to have been preferred.” (Kelly 1932:109)

Northern Paiute: “When traveling or when hunting afoot in winter, grass or shredded sagebrush bark was stuffed inside the moccasin.” (Kelly 1932:109)

Northern Paiute: “[In regards to headgear] When a heavy load was slung from the head, a pad of sagebrush bark prevented chafing.” (Kelly 1932:114)

Northern Paiute: “If women did not have any skin to make a dress, they made a skirt with tule.  The tule was placed closely together with wefts of wiha or string made from sagebrush bark.  It was done in open twine.” (Fowler 1989:89)

Northern Paiute: “[In regards to clothing] The one-piece buckskin and/or sagebrush or rush sandals were typical footwear.” (Fowler 1989:98)

Northern Paiute: “A mudhen skin apron was worn.  A string of buckskin was tied around the waist or sagebrush bark was used.  The string was tied in a knot on the side or in the front.” (Fowler 1989:100)

Northern Paiute: “Women wore a sagebrush bark skirt (sawabi nagwi) that came below the knee.  These skirts were made of string twisted out of sagebrush bark…Sagebrush bark was also used to make a sack [shirt, dress] worn by men and women.  It was called watsi tasub.” (Fowler 1989:100)

Northern Paiute: “[In regards to leggings] In the winter, sagebrush bark was also wrapped around the legs.  The sagebrush bark was worked into string and was braided 2 in. to 4 in. wide and wrapped around the legs (wisa wüpa'agawisa, leg; wupa'aga, wrapping.)” (Fowler 1989:101)

Northern Paiute: “In the winter men on the hunt wore buckskin moccasins and leggings of buckskin or sagebrush bark wrapped around the legs up to the knees.  These were worn to protect his legs from the brush and also for warmth.” (Fowler 1989:104)

Northern Paiute: “[In regards to men's clothing] Men wore a sagebrush bark apron (breech-clout) called pinugakwasia.” (Fowler 1989:102)

Northern Paiute (Fowler 1989:105) Other people made moccasins from twisted sagebrush bark.  These were called wasimoko…Sagebrush bark that has been softened by rubbing is put inside the moccasin before it is put on the foot.  This keeps the feet dry and the warm in winter.

Northern Paiute: “Sagebrush bark was used to make sandals, like a slipper.  The soles were thick.  They were tied on with string.” (Fowler 1989:107)

Northern Paiute: “[In regards to overshoes or snowboots] Sagebrush bark was softened and the fibres were combed out.  These were rolled into a string and woven into a show with a legging which comes to the knee (nubamakanuba, snow; maka, shoe).” (Fowler 1989:107)

Northern Paiute: “[In regards to overshoes or snowboots] A wide sandal, "something like an overshoe" was made of tule (toi)…Sagebrush bark was stuffed between this tule overshoe and the moccasin.” (Fowler 1989:107)

Northern Paiute: “[In regards to overshoes or snowboots] People made shoes of braided sagebrush bark for winter.” (Fowler 1989:107)

Northern Paiute: “Headbands (zowɔpaga) were made out of the neck skin of mallard with the feathers on it…Sagebrush bark was used for a core around which the mallard skin was wrapped.” (Fowler 1989:107)

Pit River: “[In regards to the Hammawi] Moccasins were made of deerskin and even from tule and sagebrush.” (Kniffen 1928:306)

Pit River: “[In regards to dress and toiletry taboos for new fathers] Young man, specially after birth of first child, wears braided sagebrush-bark belt, 3-4 in. wide, tied around waist rather tightly so he will have a slim waist, "never be pot-bellied,"  Also wears this belt when chasing deer, "so stomach won't flop up and down," and also "so he won't be so hungry." Youth, being sent off on vision quest to seek power at medicinal lake or springs, wears similar belt.” (Voegelin 1942:215)

As ceremony

Northern Paiute: “[In regards to boys' rites] When a boy's voiced changed, he was told to run.  He ran in no prescribed direction but at the end of his course he stacked sagebrush and left it there.” (Kelly 1932:162)

Northern Paiute: “[In regards to girls' adolescence ceremony] Upon attainment of maturity, a girl retired to a small lodge of rye grass or sagebrush, built twenty or so yards north of the main dwelling.” (Kelly 1932:162)

Northern Paiute: “[In regards to girls' adolescence ceremony] She tied her hair with sagebrush bark and braided circlets of it which she wore about her wrists, upper arms, knees, and ankles as a safeguard against rheumatism.  She also wore a braided belt of sagebrush bark.” (Kelly 1932:163)

Northern Paiute: “[In regards to shamanism and the disposal of hair clippings] When an individual cut his hair he buried it beneath a small sagebrush bush.  Then he jumped over the bush, trying not to touch it.  If he accomplished this, his hair would grow "nice and long." (Kelly 1932:194)

Northern Paiute: “The mother of Tadagai could make the snow melt.  She cried like a stallion, took a firebrand of sagebrush, and pointed it toward the south, saying, "Come on, rain; come on, rain!" She did not dance.” (Kelly 1932:201)

Pit River, Klamath, Modoc: “[In regards to a grass or skin breechclot worn by a girl during a girl's puberty ceremony] (To serve as a mentrual pad) Sagebrush encased in bark.” (Voegelin 1942:219)

Pit River: “[In regards to an attendant wiping a girl's mouth during a girl's puberty ceremony] Shredded sagebrush bark used to wipe mouth.” (Voegelin 1942:218)

Pit River, Modoc: ”[In regards to the purification of the house with aromatic plants after a person's death] Sage.” (Voegelin 1942:231)

Pit River: “[In regards to mourning] Other paraphernalia, also covered with pitch and soot, were a pine-nut necklace or a buckskin collar cut in long fringes, both called Bétadì; a belt (cĭ'Eski) variously of twined sagebrush bark, hemp string, buckskin, or the widow's hair; and wristlets of buckskin about two inches wide.” (Garth 1953:166)


Northern Paiute: “[In regards to tattooing] The desire design was painted in charcoal from a sagebrush fire and the skin punctured with porcupine quills or with a rabbit-bone splinter.” (Kelly 1932:116)

Northern Paiute: “[In regards to cradles] The infant is placed in the basket on a padding of shredded sagebrush bark and held in by means of a thing laced through skin loops along the sides of the cradle.” (Kelly 1932:132)

Northern Paiute: “Sagebrush bark was sometimes twisted into a two-ply string with the fingers.” (Kelly 1932:136)

Northern Paiute: “[In regards to weaving] The weft was twine (either from wiha'bi or sagebrush bark), thongs, or, more recently, strips of cotton cloth.” (Kelly 1932:137)

Northern Paiute: “Bags for food storage were made of tule or of sagebrush bark, presumably in open twine.  They were described as ‘like those the Modocs use only not as well made.’” (Kelly 1932:137)

Northern Paiute: “Sagebrush bark blankets are said to have been made in the same technique, but without the frame.  Such blankets, like those of rabbit skin, were used as bedding and capes.  Leggings were also made from sagebrush bark, presumably in open twine.” (Kelly 1932:137)

Northern Paiute: “On short winter journeys fire was carried in a slow match of braided sagebrush bark.” (Kelly 1932:142)

Northern Paiute: “The Gidü'tikadü had the composite fire drill as did their Nevada relatives.  The shaft (kudza') was of any kind of wood, the tip (sawa'gudsü) of sagebrush...The hearth (wai) was usually of soft juniper and had "any number of holes," usually two to four….Sagebrush bark served as tinder, and a little sand or dry dirt was dropped in the hole to encourage friction.” (Kelly 1932:142)

Northern Paiute: “Burdens were carried on the back.  A load was slung from the chest by a tumpline but if very heavy, it was suspended from the head with a pad of sagebrush bark to prevent chafing.” (Kelly 1932:148)

Northern Paiute: “On short trips in winter, fire was carried in a slow match (koso'-ykwi'na; koso', fire; yakwi'na; hold in the hand?) of sagebrush bark in three-strand braid.  It was "about the size of a woman's forearm and was braided hard."  A slightly different type was reported by Piudy, ‘Take the stem (wood) of sagebrush and twist it with bark.  Then light the end and it will keep burning.  Keep waving it.’” (Kelly 1932:148)

Northern Paiute: “The utility container was the conical twined burden basket.  Foods, such as roots, were stored in an open twine sack of sagebrush bark (watsi'-mago'o; sagebrush bark container) described as four feet in length and two in width.” (Kelly 1932:148)

Northern Paiute: “With the introduction of horses, travel was greatly facilitated.  The horse pack called for twisted or braided (three of four-strand) deer hide or for three-strand braid of sagebrush or wiha'bi twine.” (Kelly 1932:148)

Northern Paiute: “[In regards to the first cradle] Crushed sagebrush bark was used for padding, and a single rabbit skin or woven sagebrush bark served as a blanket.” (Kelly 1932:161)

Northern Paiute: “[In regards to corralling ‘charming’ antelope] They have already placed sagebrush, roots ends up, in a big circle, about as far as from here to the camp [about half a mile].  There were many people to do it so it didn't take long to pile the brush…They put the horns on a pile of sagebrush in the middle of the camp circle...They butcher the antelope and dry the meat on sagebrush bushes…When there is no sagebrush for a corral, they braid sagebrush bark and make a fence by tying it to posts about four feet tall.  Loose strands of bark hang down the poles and when the antelope are in the corral the people pull the braid, and the loose strands wave.” (Kelly 1932:84)

Northern Paiute: “Deer, antelope, or mountain-sheep meat was cut in strips and dried near the fire or in the sun.  It was hung on sagebrush, any convenient tree, or on a rack.” (Kelly 1932:93)

Northern Paiute: “Dried fish were packed in an open-twine tule or sagebrush-bark sack "like those the Modocs use only not as well made." These bags were called mago'o (general word for container) and were possibly four feet in length and two feet in width.” (Kelly 1932:97)

Northern Paiute: “The fish were dried in a willow shade covered only on the sunny side.  Seeds, meat and fish were kept in baskets.  They were buried in baskets or in sacks woven from sagebrush bark.  The cache was covered with willows and then dirt was put on top.” (Fowler 1989:11)

Northern Paiute: “[In regards to antelope hunting] When an antelope herd is seen, the chief of the antelope drive sets the date for the drive…A place where there is a great deal of sagebrush is selected for the site of the corral.” (Fowler 1989:14)

Northern Paiute: “[In regards to antelope hunting] The corral is about 150 ft in diameter.  The fence is made by pulling up sagebrush which are placed together with the roots in the air.” (Fowler 1989:16)

Northern Paiute: “To hunt groundhogs, take sagebrush bark and burn it at the hole.” (Fowler 1989:25)

Northern Paiute: “When rabbits were roasted, women broke up the whole rabbit when it was cooked.  Each hind leg was broken off, and the front legs were broken off.  The neck was taken off and the body broken just in the back of the ribs.  The heart was taken out.  These were all put on the sagebrush.  When the rabbit was taken out of the coals it was brushed off with a sprig of sagebrush.” (Fowler 1989:29)

Northern Paiute: “Unprocessed seeds ‘are stored in the ground.  Sagebrush bark is put on the pile of seeds and then it is covered with dirt.’” (Fowler 1989:45)

Northern Paiute: “[In regards to the seeds of wy (Indian ricegrass, Oryzopsis hymanoides)] The seeds of the wy are stored for winter use...The seeds were stored in pits.  The pits were lined with willows and sagebrush bark.  After the whites came the pits were lined with gunny sacks.” (Fowler 1989:46)

Northern Paiute: “[In regards to sawabi (sagebrush, Artemesia tridentata)] Sagebrush (sawabi) also has a gum.  It is gotten easily.  It is found in the summer in little balls on the bush.  It is gathered and roasted just a little in the ashes.  The gum on sagebrush is called sawapon-na'a.  It is chewed until it no longer sticks together.  Then it is thrown away and a new supply is gotten.” (Fowler 1989:53) 

Northern Paiute: “To make duck decoys (paido'), ducks are skinned and stuffed with sagebrush bark or tule, or anything that was light.” (Fowler 1989:54)

Northern Paiute: “[In regards to piəg (caterpillar, larvae of white-lined sphinx moth, Hyles lineata)] Worms (piəg) that live in tall pine trees are dark greyish in color with yellow stripes on the back…The dried worms are stored in sagebrush bark sacks for winter use.” (Fowler 1989:61)

Northern Paiute: “Salt (oɲabi) was gotten around Topaz.  It was found under the greasewood.  It is found around the roots…This is gathered and covered with softened sagebrush bark.  Hot coals are put on top of the bark.  This melts the salt and it forms one large piece.” (Fowler 1989:62)

Northern Paiute: “A fire was started with sagebrush bark as tinder and sagebrush bark.  Then greasewood was used because it did not burn so rapidly.  When people were in the mountains, they used whatever wood was available, mostly cedar, and pine if it could be found.” (Fowler 1989:77)

Northern Paiute: “Both men and women used a comb (wunədsu).  The comb was made from porcupine tail…The tail is skinned and stuffed with sagebrush bark.  It is sewed and stuffed when it is still fresh.” (Fowler 1989:110)

Northern Paiute: “[In regards to nose and ear piercing] The lobe was squeezed tightly between the fingers until it was numb.  Then it was pierced with a sharpened sagebrush stick that had been burnt a little in the fire.  This prevented the lobe from getting sore.  The sagebrush stick was left in the hole until the would healed.  When it was taken out, a string of wiha or buckskin was put through the hole so it would not close up.  The string was left in there until the wound had thoroughly healed.” (Fowler 1989:112)

Northern Paiute: “[In regards to burden baskets] Twisted willow branches were used for a tumpline in carrying wood, as was the line of sagebrush bark.  The tumpline of willow was called subinamabüsugin, (subi, willow; namabüsugin, twisitng).” (Fowler 1989:118)

Northern Paiute: “When a man was out hunting, he carries a rope made of sagebrush bark.” (Fowler 1989:120)

Pit River: “A fire drill (yodiqhdi) about two feet long of sagebrush, buckeye, or cedar was used on a juniper-wood hearth (westicis) in which there might be as manay as six drill holes.” (Garth 1953:155)

Pit River: “[In regards to vegetable diapering material] Sagebrush bark, softened by mashing, put under child.” (Voegelin 1942:215)

Klamath: “Ghät, or bōl'-whē.- The largest, most abundant, and most widely distributed species of sagebrush, composing probably nine-tenths of the shrubby vegetation of the plains of southeastern Oregon...In the production of fire on wood by friction, the ordinary method of obtaining fire before the advent of the white man and still occasionally resorted to, small dead stems of it are used as twirling sticks, this being the most widely used and satisfactory wood for the purpose...Away from the timber, sagebrush is the most universal fuel of the region, not only among the aborigines, but among the white ranchmen.  The short trunks, often 10 cm. (4 inches) in diameter, but more commonly one-half to two-thirds as much, have a wood of not very great solidity, which, assisted by the loose stringy bark, takes fire readily and produces fairly good coals.” (Coville 1897:105) 

Klamath: “[In regards to snares, nets, traps] Twine snares suspended from clumps of sagebrush.  This is a recent method of securing rabbits.” (Voegelin 1942:169)

Distribution Map: