Suggested Citation: Kerr, Andy. 2000. Oregon Desert Guide: 70 Hikes. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books. pp. 44-45
It is not all sagebrush. However, if you were set down randomly in the Oregon Desert prior to the
European invasion, you'd most likely find yourself in sagebrush.
That's true even today, even though vast areas have been converted to "unnatural exotic grasslands-rural pasture with remnant bottomland, agriculture, and urban-industrial," to use the classification in Oregon's Living Landscape.
It is also the case that, due to livestock grazing intrusion and fire exclusion, sagebrush—where it still exists—is in greater abundance now as compared to presettlement times, both in absolute numbers and relative to the bunchgrass.
Vegetation is primarily a function of soil type, elevation, and moisture.
Depending on where you are in the Oregon Desert, you'll see mountain big sagebrush, Wyoming big sagebrush, low sagebrush, black sagebrush, silver sagebrush, bitterbrush, salt desert scrub, saltsage, spiny hopsage (with shadscale and black greasewood varieties), and mountain mahogany communities.
If the site receives enough moisture from above and not too much fire, you'll see western juniper woodland communities. Forest—or at least woodland—communities of aspen can often be found at higher elevations, and sometimes relic stands of ponderosa pine or white fir or Douglas-fir.
If the ground is wet enough (and if the livestock have been restrained), you'll see willow riparian wetland and cottonwood riparian wetland communities.
If you go high enough, you'll be in alpine or tundra communities.
In extreme environments, such as on lava flows and sand dunes, you won't see any vegetation. The big lakes are open water, and the dry lakes are often bare playas.
Wetlands can also be found in the desert and include tule and cattail marshes (emergent wetlands) as well as sedge-dominated wet meadows.
Numerous species of plants are found only in the Oregon Desert. On Steens Mountain alone, at least thirty species of plants are of special interest (rare, endemic, threatened, endangered, and so forth). Newly discovered species are still being described to this day.
To repeat: it is not all sagebrush.