Desert shrubs have various adaptations to help them survive in their environment. Many have small leaves, which limits the surface area that can be damaged by the sun, and prevents water loss through evaporation. Some shrubs also have thick, leathery leaves to help prevent water loss. Animal herbivory also poses a challenge to sparse, desert vegetation. Some shrubs, like sagebrush have a bitter taste, which discourages animals from eating them. Others have sharp, spiny leaves or branches to deter hungry animals.

Learn more about Capitol Reef shrubs on the second page of the park's plant checklist.


Apache Plume

Scientific Name: Fallugia paradoxa
Size (height): up to 6 feet (1.8 m) tall
Habitat: Lowland riparian, mixed desert shrub, pinyon-juniper. It is found throughout the park, especially abundant in Grand Wash and Capitol Gorge.
Flowering Season: April–August
Range: Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona

Description: Apache Plume has scaly bark, wedge shaped leaves, and white flowers with five petals. To the European Americans who gave the plant its common name, Apache Plume, the feathery seeds resembled headdresses of the Apache People. Apache plume is an important browse plant for large mammals.

On left, a shrub with dozens of pink feathery plumes and red-brown cliffs behind. On right, a few 5-petaled white flowers.
Apache plume is easy to identify once it has bloomed and produced feathery seeds. Until then, it resembles cliffrose (Purshia mexicana).

Left: NPS / Shauna Cotrell, Right: NPS / Emily Vian

Several 5-petaled pale yellow flowers on a green shrub.
Cliffrose in bloom.

NPS / Shauna Cotrell


Scientific Name: Purshia mexicana
Size (height): 1.5–10 ft (0.5–3.0 m) tall
Habitat: Mixed desert shrub, pinyon-juniper, mixed conifer. It is found throughout the park, especially abundant in Grand Wash and Capitol Gorge.
Flowering Season: May–June
Range: Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, California, and Nevada

Description: Cliffrose has numerous branches with shredded bark which has been used by native people for weaving sandals, mats and other items. It has aromatic, five-lobed leaves which are green above and whitish below due to a coating of fine hairs. The leaves are coated with a resin that gives them a bitter taste, but the shrub is generally palatable to large herbivores and is an important browse plant. Cliffrose flowers are white to yellowish with five petals. When in bloom, the shrub is often smelled before sighted, as it gives off a powerfully sweet scent that attracts bees and other pollinators.


Fourwing Saltbush

Scientific Name: Atriplex canescens
Size (height): up to 6 ft (2 m)
Habitat: Desert shrubland and Pinyon-Juniper
Flowering Season: SpringFall
Range: Utah, western North America

Description: There are a few different species of saltbush found in Capitol Reef, and all are able to survive on soil that has a higher than normal salt content. Fourwing saltbush is one of the easiest to identify because of its distinctive seedpods that have four “wings” coming out of the center, surrounding a single seed. While some plants have both male and female parts of the same individual, each saltbush is usually either male or female and are able to change sex! One study showed that in just 7 years, 40% of saltbush plants in each studied population switched sexes.

Two photos: 1: Spindly shrub with narrow green leaves and tan colored clusters of seeds on stalks. 2: Seeds with four "wings" around central seed in a hand.
The fourwing saltbush has many seeds with four "wings" around the central seed. Though it is not legal for the public to collect, remove, or destroy plants inside the park, seeds are collected by park staff for use in restoring the plants to their habitat.

NPS / Ann Huston

Close up of narrow, silvery green leaves with three little indentations at the top.
There are four subspecies of A. tridentata, but Capitol Reef only has the one subspecies.

NPS/ Emily Van Ness

Great Basin Sagebrush

Scientific Name: Artemisia tridentata var. tridentata
Size (height): 39 ft (0.53 m)
Habitat: well-drained, sandy soils in valley bottoms
Flowering Season: late summerlate fall
Range: Widespread in Utah, western US, and southwest Canada

Description: Capitol Reef is home to several species of sagebrush, and Great Basin sagebrush is among the most abundant. Sagebrush have soft gray-green leaves, with three little indentations at the tips, giving them the name “tridentata,” three teeth. Each shrub has a deep taproot, to help access and store water, as well as a root system closer to the surface, spreading out horizontally to collect surface water. The leaves give off a pleasant scent that wafts through the air, especially after summer rains.

Skinny green, jointed stems, with little flower-like yellow clusters on it.
What look like yellow flowers are actually male cones with bracts that can be up to 4 mm long. The male cones produce pollen.


Green Ephedra

Scientific Name: Ephedra viridis var. viridis
Size (height): up to 5 ft (1.5 m)
Habitat: desert shrubland and Pinyon-Juniper
Flowering Season: n/a (Gymnosperm—seeds in cones, not flowers or fruit)
Range: Utah, the Southwest, north to Oregon and Wyoming

Description: While most plants photosynthesize through their leaves, green ephedra does not. Its leaves are reduced to tiny scale-like attachments to help it conserve water in the desert. This plant harnesses the sun’s energy using chlorophyll in its slender, jointed stems. The stems also contain pseudoephedrine, a decongestant. Pioneers and Native Americans steeped the stems in hot water to make a medicinal tea; the plant is sometimes called Mormon Tea or Brigham's Tea. In spring, the shrub produces yellow male cones containing pollen, and green female cones. Its seeds are small, triangular, and brown.


Roundleaf Buffaloberry

Scientific Name: Shepherdia rotundifolia
Size (height & diameter): 3–6 ft (0.9–1.8 m) tall & 3–12 ft (0.9–3.7 m) wide
Habitat: Widespread throughout the park on hillsides, slickrock, and canyon bottoms in mixed desert shrub and pinyon-juniper woodlands.
Flowering Season: May–July
Range: Endemic to the Colorado Plateau occurring in Utah, Arizona, and Colorado.

Description: The species name, rotundifolia, refers to its round leaves which are leathery, silvery green above, and whitish below, due to a dense covering of short hairs. In spring and summer, small yellow flowers grow in clusters. The berries were used by native tribes to make pemmican, a combination of dried meat, berries, fat, and other ingredients, that stores well and is a high energy food. Settlers also used the berries to make a sauce for buffalo (bison) meat.

Two photos: 1: Large silvery-green shrub with canyon and blue sky in background. 2: closeup of pale green leaves with small 4-petaled yellow flowers.
Roundleaf buffaloberry is easy to identify from a distance, with its silvery-green hue. In the spring, small yellow flowers bloom.

NPS / Emily Van Ness


Rubber Rabbitbrush

Scientific Name: Ericameria nauseosa
Size (height & diameter): up to 6 ft (1.8 m) tall
Habitat: Widespread throughout the park on hillsides, benches and canyon bottoms in desert scrub, sagebrush, and pinyon-juniper woodlands.
Flowering Season: August–October
Range: throughout the western United States north to Canada and south to Mexico

Description: Rubber rabbitbrush is named for its sap, which can be used to create a rubbery latex. Rabbitbrush blooms relatively late in the season, adding to the fall colors with plentiful bright yellow flowers. Its narrow green leaves grow on straight, gray-green stems, which are often dotted with white, cottony balls. These white spheres are insect galls created by tephritid flies (genus Aciurina). Adult flies lay their eggs inside rabbitbrush stems, triggering the growth of galls, each containing a single larva. Young overwinter inside their cottony shelters until they emerge as adults in the spring.

Two pictures. One is a green shrub with yellow flowers. Two is a gray-green stem with a cottony ball around the stalk.
On left, rubber rabbitbrush in bloom. On right, a white cottony insect gall on a rabbitbrush stem.


Last updated: February 14, 2021

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