Bitterbrush fragrance wafts across Central Oregon in a floral, spicy, lemony, cinnamony swash. I love this subtle desert perfume that belies the name of the shrub of open western lands. I breathe in a memory that comes unbidden. I’m back in my college days on a trip west from Eugene to Bend and continuing east on Highway 26 past Prineville, the Ochocos with their stately big pines, and on to sleepy Mitchell, and am zigzagging up the old highway grade. Then, I’m there, stopped by the road and hiking into the tangy embrace of bitterbrush flowers the color of lemon meringue. That’s the scene, the time, and the place.
Bitterbrush grows in the sunniest places of our wild lava rock backyard of ponderosa pines, joining fellow shrubs that each have their own compelling scents–manzanitas, ceanothus, and currants. I pick a sprig of bitterbrush and study a single flower of five pale yellow petals and the pollen-filled gold stamen center. The finger-nail-sized flowers line the stems and overshadow the even tinier three-lobed, waxy green leaves. Then I close my eyes, lift up the twig to my nose and luxuriate in a scent that is far from universally appreciated, like lilacs or roses.
Bitterbrush has a lovely scientific name of Purshia tridentata, and actually is in the rose family. It’s a favorite browse plant for pronghorn (hence a common name of antelope bitterbrush), deer, and elk. Mule deer particularly select bitterbrush in September, when the plant may compose 91 percent of its diet.
On a smaller scale, deer mice, ground squirrels, chipmunks, and kangaroo rats eat its seeds. Birds take shelter within or below the shrub that grows from two to six feet tall. Native bees find the scent as irresistible as I do, and are important pollinators. Spiders spin webs threading flower to flower, leaf to leaf, and twig to twig.
Pogonomyrmex ants serve as inadvertent farmers, planting bitterbrush seed they’ve harvested to eat later. (Are you as stymied as I am by an ant with a five-syllable name? Google the name, and you’ll come to AntWiki, “where ant biologists share their knowledge.”) Pogonomyrmex ants are harvesters that dwell in arid climates of the New World. They clip off seeds with their mandibles, and then store them in a multitude of ways, depending on species. You’ve likely seen the big mounds of fine stones or the sandy raised rings with holes in the center leading to underground kingdoms. Up close, these ants have a distinguishing feature of coarse hairs on their heads, for carting fine sand to excavate a nest. (Don’t look too close, most sting!).
Snap! That’s the sound of my laptop closing. One of the many joys of my new home and first spring here with Wes in Bend is to live with bitterbrush at hand. So I leave to investigate…
The bees? They are not all bees, these tiny dancers of the air above the blooms. I finally trace one to a bloom and the iridescent green sheen and red and black head? That’s a beetle. In the late afternoon sun, spider strands lace the limbs and I awaken to the overlooked tapestry. A bee lands, not your honeybee or bumblebee type, but smaller than a house fly, shiny in neon blues and greens, ethereal, and critical to the world that hums along below our notice.
I inhale this living, present beauty and exhale the memories of that first time with bitterbrush on the slopes above Mitchell. I am stunned and grateful that I’ve come full circle to the embrace of this state that draws me like a bee to this eastern Oregon of vanilla-scented ponderosas, spicy bitterbrush, and twangy sagebrush, and to the coast where the scent of kelp sends me tumbling back to being eight years old with my family at Yachats, crouched over tidepools and sprinting into the icy waves.
On this Memorial Day weekend of remembrance, I celebrate the wild scents, the vivid memories of the people and places that have shaped us and our planet, and this glorious, miraculous spring that beckons our senses to awaken to the dance.