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Shrub-Steppe Flora: What may seem like a barren landscape is teaming with diversity. By: Wendy Mee, Kittitas County Conservation District

Traveling south along I-82 over Manastash Ridge one distant morning ago with my mother, heading I don’t remember where, the morning sun teasing the silvery chartreuse flowers of the sagebrush and tousling the blonde/bronze blades of the blue-bunch wheatgrass, I couldn’t help myself, I turned to her and exclaimed, “Oh WOW, isn’t it beautiful?”

Her response made me sad then and still does today, “What? I don’t see anything.” 

Sad to spend your life within such a dynamic landscape and never know it, never to be moved or soothed by the painfully subtle waves of color undulating across the folding landscape, splashing gently at the base of the wide horizon.  Growing up in this landscape, while the openness and craggy forms appealed to our younger Tolkien-infused minds, it really wasn’t until I returned to school in my forties that I learned much about the shrub-steppe. Plant ecology and taxonomy field trips piqued my interest. Following folks from the Washington Native Plant Society around on hikes, with their worn and beloved Hitchcock’s in tow, changed my life, my perspective, my focus. And for that I am most grateful!

To me, the” Where’s Waldo?” characteristic nature of the Shrub-Steppe, is one of its many charms. What a treasure trove of hidden delights awaits when you enter this misperceived “barren landscape.”  I have been fortunate enough to spend the better part of almost 20 years working in and exploring the shrub-steppe, and it never fails to please. The landscape is always changing, always sharing something new about itself.

There are over 600 documented plant species at the Yakima Training Center, over 300 documented at the Wild Horse Windfarm. Granted, not all those plants are native or desired, but the vast majority are. The Kittitas County shrub-steppe zone typically receives only 8-15” of precipitation annually, with the bulk of that delivered in winter. It is not an easy place to live.  Plant adaptation to a very xeric (dry summer) environment has evolved some very similar characteristics, which contributes to the perception of non-diversity. Many plants’ leaves have a bluish or green/gray tone from hairs which help limit water loss by evapo-transpiration. Many plants are short and rounded or bunchy. Many play seasonal hide and seek, emerging early in the spring, then disappearing back below ground as the soil dries out and the heat cranks up. 

The classic shrub-steppe vision is that of a sea of big sagebrush, with some blue bunch wheatgrass and Sandberg’s bluegrass. This is often true in the deeper soil sites; however, a closer look is likely to find a lot more going on that meets the eye. Rabbitbrush species, slender buckwheat, puccoon, long-leaf phlox, Atragalus and Lomatium species are just a few of the other plants often found in the deeper soils. Take a closer look at the ‘sagebrush”, there are at least 4 different species in our region, and a few subspecies likely. The various plant community compositions reflect the dynamic geographic and geologic mosaic of this region.  While some community differences can be fairly evident given different aspects (north facing slopes vs south facing slopes) or deeper soils vs very shallow soils; even very subtle changes in substrate can signal a shift or change in the plant community composition. 

If you are looking for some encouragement after a long winter, the little sagebrush buttercups should be out soon to cheer you on. Golden patches of the little annual Crocidium multicaule (spring gold) can help lighten the way. And please don’t forget to pause and look under the sagebrush for the dainty lance-leaf spring beauty to put a smile on your face, or for the nodding blue bells to shyly emerge.  Find a spot, sit, and blend into the mosaic. Perhaps a sage thrasher will start telling you their story (they can talk a lot.) Perhaps you’ll be able to hear the low hum of bees and catch that honey rich scent of bitterbrush blossoms.  Oh, the possibilities of discovery are everywhere.  Check those rocky outcroppings and lithosol areas where diversity looms large but is hunkered down low to the ground. That champagne bubbling sound is the horned lark, so happy you have arrived. 

Bring a little notepad and jot down the number of different shrubs, sub-shrubs, perennial wildflowers, annual wildflowers and grasses you see, take some pictures, do this in the spring, the summer, the fall, and you will soon come to realize just how diverse this system can be.  While you may take delight and inspiration in the riotous early spring displays on the lithosols, or the bright yellow of balsamroot flowers on the hillslopes as you drive by, you may also learn to love the soft color changes of fall, the blueish silver and blond blending into the terrain, punctuated by the softly scented yellow blossoms of rabbitbrush. 

If this landscape is new to you, or the opportunity to explore and learn has been evasive, I encourage you to take part in the KEEN’s “Get Intimate with the Shrub-Steppe” events, May 10-12.  This year is their 25th year of shrub-steppe celebration, an opportunity for you to learn, and make contacts with groups aligned with your areas of interest, whether it be the wildlife folks, bird people, fish people, plant people, rock people…or any combination thereof, as one thing leads to another.  It is a great starting point or refocusing opportunity.  Bring the children and don’t let half of your life slip by before seeing the beauty and magic of the shrub-steppe, acknowledging the value of this ecosystem, and doing your part to help protect it as you can.

Learn more about Get Intimate with the Shrub-Steppe here:


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