150 Boise icons: Sagebrush

awebb@idahostatesman.comMay 14, 2013 

Did you know? Cort Conley’s book, “Idaho for the Curious,” includes more sage lore, including the story of an Emmett farmer who figured out how to graft gooseberry and currant stock to sagebrush roots.


Grow up in Boise and there's a good chance you'll develop a deep affection - some would say addiction - for the aroma of sagebrush. That dusty, woody scent is emblematic of Boise and its Foothills.

Writer Mark Twain was of two minds about the West's native perfume.

"When crushed, sagebrush emits an odor which isn't exactly magnolia and equally isn't exactly polecat, but it is a sort of compromise between the two," he wrote to his wife from Nevada in 1861.

American Indian tribes, including the Shoshone, used sagebrush as a cure for colds, stomachaches and fevers. A poultice of crushed leaves on the forehead was a cure for headaches.

Settlers in the southern part of the state used big sage for Christmas trees.

Artemisia tridentata is sagebrush's botanical name. Artemisa refers to Artemis, Greek goddess of the hunt and wilderness, said Cort Conley, director of literature at the Idaho Commission on the Arts. Tridentata refers to sagebrush's leaves with three tiny teeth.

"There's a whole saga about shampoo being made from sagebrush, sold to tourists as a tonic for baldness," said Conley.

The Sage Brush Tonic Co. in Shoshone sold such a product at the turn of the century. "Nature's own remedy for falling hair," boasted the company's promotional materials.

Sagebrush is a critical habitat for wildlife, especially the sage grouse. Sagebrush can account for the birds' entire winter food source, said Conley.

The charms of artemisia tridentata have not been lost on artists.

The Idaho State Historical Museum owns "The Sage Gatherers," a large oil painting by Joseph Patrick McMeekin who lived and painted in the Hagerman canyon around 1910. The painting shows settlers collecting sagebrush for firewood.

The piece is "sort of an Idaho Millet painting," said Conley, referring to Jean-Francois Millet, a French painter known for his agrarian landscapes.

Anna Webb: 377-6431

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