If you despise crowds but long for skies that stretch to eternity, if you’re not terribly attached to shopping malls but crave solitude, if you can take or leave beaches but yearn for prairies, deserts, or mountains—and if you’re not terribly attached to trees--then you’ll probably love Wyoming. Speaking of which, our official state tree is the cottonwood, the prettiest of which just happens to reside just outside our back door!
As stately as the cottonwood may be, however, it is hardly typical of the Wyoming landscape. Cottonwoods require more water than our state’s average annual rainfall of 12.68 inches, so they only thrive in riparian areas, and then only in elevations below 6500 feet. One could argue that the pines, spruces, and quaking aspen, found in alpine ecosystems, surpass the cottonwoods in beauty and therefore are more worthy of state treedom.
I wasn’t around in 1947 when the cottonwood was adopted by Wyoming, but if I was, I’d have nominated the Artemisia tridentata ssp. Wyomingensis, aka the Wyoming big sagebrush. Sagebrush may not be as handsome as cottonwoods, as stately as lodgepole pines, or as luminous as aspens in the fall, but they’re definitely the hardiest and most abundant woody perennial in our scant soils and droughty climate. The sagebrush has only recently begun to gain respect in these parts, as people are realizing its significance to much of our rangelands. According to the USDA:
“Big sagebrush is perhaps the most important shrub on western rangelands. Evergreen leaves and abundant seed production provide an excellent winter food source to numerous species of large mammals including mule deer, black-tailed deer, white-tailed deer, elk, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep and jack rabbits. Nearly 100 bird species depend on sagebrush ecosystems.... Additionally, there are several animal species having an obligate relationship with big sagebrush including sage grouse, sharp tailed grouse, pygmy rabbits, sage thrashers, sage sparrows and Brewer’s sparrow. Sagebrush also provide habitat and food for hosts of invertebrates which in turn support birds, reptiles and small mammals....There are several plant species having close relationships with sagebrush as well.”
Much of Hubby’s work, I’m proud to say, involves the reclamation of bentonite-mined lands, from disturbed, bare ground and rocks to a restored, diverse ecosystem containing bunch grasses such as bluebunch, wild rye, and Indian ricegrass; annual forbs such as sunflower and beeplant; and native shrubs such as sagebrush, rabbitbrush, saltbush, and greasewood. The process requires a huge commitment of machinery, skilled labor, expensive seed, and prayers for rain! Success is contingent upon many factors outside of one’s control, may take years to manifest, and will be seen by very few human eyes, but is strikingly beautiful nonetheless.
“Wilderness and desert will sing joyously, the badlands will celebrate and flower—
Like the crocus in spring, bursting into blossom, a symphony of song and color.” ISAIAH 35:1