By Jim Leser
In our part of Western Colorado there is one shrub that dominates at the lower elevations. You might think it is basin sage but you would have guessed wrong. Black greasewood is the winner here because it can grow in the most unforgiving areas.
There are at least six shrubs that sometimes are referred to as greasewood, but the one I am going to discuss is black greasewood, Sarcobatus vermiculatus, also called chicowood. Sacrobatus is from the Greek sarco meaning “flesh” and batos meaning “bramble or thorn,” referring to the succulent leaves and spiny branches of the plant. The family name, Chenopodiaceae, translates to goose foot, referring to some members of this family’s leaf shape, which resembles the foot of a goose.
Sarcobatus plants are deciduous shrubs growing 3 to 7 feet tall with spiny, thorny branches and succulent leaves, 1/2–1-1/2 inches long and 1/16 inch in diameter. The leaves are green, in contrast to the grey-green color of most of the other shrubs within its range. The bark is white or dull gray in color.
Greasewood flowers from mid-spring through the summer. Male and female flowers are separate, but they occur on the same plant. Rose-colored male flowers are arranged along a short, upright spike. The greenish female flowers are also arranged along a short spike, shorter than the male flowers, and have fewer flowers per spike and arise from the leaf axils. The male spikes tend to be terminal. The seeds are cup-shaped with a papery wing below.
The area of distribution for black greasewood is western North America, from southeastern British Columbia and southwest Alberta, Canada south through the drier regions of the United States (east to North Dakota and west Texas, west to central Washington and eastern California) to northern Mexico (Coahuila).
Greasewood shrubs are usually found in sunny, flat areas around the margins of playas and in dry stream beds and arroyos. Greasewood often grows in extensive, nearly pure stands in pluvial desert locations and is most common on fine-grained soils in areas. They are very tolerant of alkaline soils and salt. Greasewood grows in association with other alkaline plants such as shadscale, saltbush, and salt grass.
Livestock sometimes utilize greasewood for winter and early spring browse. Although greasewood can be grazed by animals that are adapted, grazing of greasewood by sheep and cattle can result in oxalate poisoning resulting in kidney failure. The active agent can be either sodium oxalate or potassium oxalate. Sheep are the most vulnerable. Some wildlife species, such as jackrabbits, pronghorns or prairie dogs, forage on the plant. The plant provides burrowing or resting sites for small mammals or birds.
Man has used the tough wood for tools — if a straight enough stem could be found. The Hopi made planting sticks from straight stems. Because it is so hard, it was used as a shaft for arrows. It was also used as firewood by Native Americans and early settlers. Native Americans ate the seeds and succulent leaves. Like many members of the Goosefoot Family – spinach, kale, Swiss chard – greasewood plants have a somewhat salty flavor.
Greasewood is very drought tolerant which is one reason it is found in areas that are inhospitable for most other plants. To survive in dry, salty, alkaline soils, this shrub has developed a deeply penetrating root system that can reach up to 57 feet! This allows greasewood to access water far below the parched ground surface.
So for you folks who live in areas where soils make it difficult to grow much of anything, greasewood may be something you should look at. While its flowers are nothing to shout about and its unkempt appearance may be a turnoff, at least it will survive and provide some cover for areas that normally nothing will grow.
Jim Leser retired to Cedaredge in 2007 after a career with Texas A&M University Extension in entomology. He is a member of the Cedaredge Tree Board and a Colorado Master Gardener.