Bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata) is found throughout the Nevada deserts, and has several other common names, including Antelope Bush, Antelope Bitterbrush, Buckbrush, and Quininebrush. It is a hearty plant, but quite flammable. Following wildfires, however, the plant is able to regenerate from the roots, a great benefit in environmental restoration.

Bitterbrush grows on arid slopes at elevations between 3,000 and 10,000 feet. It prefers dry, rocky, well-drained soils and can be found commonly on south-facing mountain ridges. A deciduous shrub, it grows to between 1 to 3 meters tall, and has small, slender leaves. Bitterbrush generally blooms in late spring, producing pale yellow clusters of flowers. It is similar in look to sagebrush, the state flower of Nevada, but its leaves are generally brighter green. If there is doubt, the characteristic “sage” odor of big sagebrush is absent in bitterbrush. It gains its common name from the extremely bitter taste of the leaves. Despite its bitterness, it is an important food source for the wildlife (primarily deer, elk and mountain sheep) of the mountainous regions during the harsh winter months, and was widely used by various native people, including the Paiute, Western Shoshone, and Washoe Indians.

Bitterbrush had many medicinal uses for the Indians. A tea could be made from either the bark or the leaves of the plant. It was found to be a restorative and soothing drink for many ailments, including coughs. The Shoshone used the bark to grind into a powder and make into a poultice, which was used for treating cuts and sores. It was also made into a liquid wash for insect bites, rashes, and skin irritations. The outer seed coat could be used to produce a purple dye used to stain items made of wood, and arrows could be made from the wood of the bitterbrush.

Meriwether Lewis, of the Lewis and Clark expedition, brought back a sample of the then-unknown plant for study in 1806. The scientific name, Purshia, honors Frederick Pursh, who used Lewis’s specimen to describe this species of plant. The original Lewis specimen is housed in the Lewis & Clark Herbarium in Philadelphia.

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