Four-winged saltbush (Atriplex canescens) has caught my attention. Three things fascinate me about this native, perennial shrub. First, four-winged saltbush is dioecious, that is, male and female flowers are found on different plants. Yet in some instances saltbush can be monoecious with both male and female flowers on one plant. Then again, some saltbush plants can switch their floral arrangements from dioecious to monoecious and back again. Interesting! Why do these changes occur? Second, some researcher believe that the salts in the saltbush plant tissues act like an antifreeze and allow the shrub to photosynthesize into the winter. And third, a fungus forms an association with saltbush seedling roots upon germination. By giving the seedling access to nutrients that it may not be able to absorb easily, the fungus may give the four-winged saltbush a competitive advantage over other plants. I definitely plan to do more research on all three topics.
Four-winged saltbush is a highly variable species that readily hybridizes with other Atriplex species. It can be found mostly in alkaline soils of semi-desert areas, gravelly washes and sand dunes. A member of the goosefoot family, four-winged saltbush can be found in the United States west of the Dakotas, Kansas, and Texas as well as in Alberta, Canada.
An evergreen, four-winged saltbush can occasionally grow to ten feet in height, although two to six feet shrubs are more common. It has many branches, some of which are spiny. The alternate leaves are long and linear. Scurf (minute white scales) cover the stems and leaves, especially when young, and help protect the plant against water loss. Tiny bladders on the leaves store salts and eventually burst, scattering the salt onto the leaves. (Another interesting research topic.) The seeds have four large, membranous wings arising at right angles from the seeds, hence the derivation of one common name. A. canescens is also called chamiza, salt sage, four-wing shadscale and a host of other names.
Native Americans collected the leaves of four-winged saltbush and ate them raw or cooked. I find the leaves a bit coarse and bitter, but perhaps I ate them in the wrong season. The seeds can be cooked like a hot cereal. A yellow dye was also obtained from the leaves and twigs.
Four-winged saltbush is an important browse for wildlife such as deer, pronghorn, rabbits as well as for livestock. Birds and small mammals eat saltbush seeds and find shelter and protection amid the shrub’s branches and shadow.
The saltbush portion of four-winged saltbush’s name either refers to the salty (bitter to me) taste of the leaves or to the alkaline soil habitats in which the shrub grows. The species name, canescens, means “grayish white” as in the scurfy leaf color.
These four-winged saltbush plants were growing near Reno NV.