Wyoming is 85 percent rangeland. Not a big surprise when you consider all the sagebrush you see when driving across I-80 or just driving from Pinedale to Big Piney.
Sagebrush is a huge component of Wyoming landscapes and is an extremely important plant to many native wildlife species. In fact, sagebrush is so important in Wyoming that in 2016 Gov. Mead signed a law that designated Wyoming big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) as the official state shrub. The really neat thing about this is that it wasn’t range scientists or wildlife biologists that asked for this shrub to be the symbol of our state; no, it was a high school biology class in Hulett, Wyo., that approached lawmakers to sponsor Wyoming big sagebrush to be the state shrub. I can’t think of a more iconic plant to represent our state.
Although its name would suggest that it is only found in Wyoming, Wyoming big sagebrush actually occurs from Montana and North Dakota south to California, New Mexico, Colorado and Nebraska. It is a long-living species with an average life span of 42 years and a maximum lifespan exceeding 150 years. Of the three major sagebrush species, Wyoming big sage is the most drought-tolerant, which is what makes it such a good species for our arid rangelands. Wyoming big sage reproduces from seed and produces on average 350,000 seeds in a season, with older and larger plants producing over a million seeds.
If the state shrub of Wyoming doesn’t excite you, maybe the state flower will. In Wyoming, the state flower is Indian paintbrush (Castilleja linariaefolia). This showy wildflower is often found with our state shrub and also in pinyon pine or juniper woodlands throughout the state. Indian paintbrush has been Wyoming’s state flower for 100 years, being designated in 1917.
If you want to grow Indian paintbrush in your yard, there are a few things you might consider. Indian paintbrush requires a host plant to grow as it has roots that are parasitic, hence why it is always found near another green plant such as sagebrush. The Native Americans used Indian paintbrush in a variety of ways making dyes from it and also using it for medicinal uses. It is said that Indian paintbrush can treat different skin diseases, kidney disorders and leprosy.
The last state plant we are going to talk about is the state tree. Wyoming’s state tree is the plains cottonwood (Populus deltoids ssp. monilifera). This deciduous tree was designated as the official state tree in 1947. It is a large, fast-growing, short-lived tree that spans across the Great Plains to the eastern border of the Rocky Mountains. It is a member of the willow family and is named for its very characteristic cotton-like hairs surrounding the seeds. The plains cottonwood is considered the “pioneer of the prairie.”
Wyoming is full of many beautiful and unique plants. I feel that these three really give tribute to what Wyoming is about. Wyoming big sagebrush represents the ability to face tough conditions and persist on; Indian paintbrush represents the beauty of the state; and the plains cottonwood represents that desire to find new places and stake a claim. Information about the state plants came from statesymbolsusa.org/states/united-states/wyoming.
As spring approaches, be sure to get out there and see what beauty our rangelands hold. If you ever have any questions about any plants you see out on the range, please feel free to contact the district. The best way is to take a photo of the plant and not pick it. You never know when a rare plant might appear! Happy Spring everyone!