By Nicholas La Palm, Program Coordinator

Nevada Outdoor School, California Trail Interpretive Center

“For anyone unfamiliar with northern Nevada, spending winter in the Great Basin Desert might sound like a warm and pleasant thing to do. 

While warm is a laughably unfit adjective, a case can be made for pleasant. If you’ve just finished shoveling the driveway, or commuting over the summit during a snowstorm, I’ll allow you the well-deserved eye roll, but hear me out. 

Imagine for a moment a wintry high-desert landscape. Were you to try and paint it, you might think you needn’t many colors: blue for the mountains and the sky (if it is clear), and white for the draping blanket of snow. 

But the truth is, you’re going to need a lot of green. 

Plant life in the Great Basin is determined largely by elevation. At each altitudinal zone are corresponding dominant species, most of which (with the exception of those in the alpine zone) remain green year-round. 

From lower elevations where rigid sagebrush stems poke determinedly out of drifting snow, to the mixed conifer forest atop our many mountain ranges, to the strands of pinyon-juniper perched in-between, our evergreen shrubs and trees reign supreme. 

This infusion of color is sure to bring delight to any pair of eyes squinting in the snowlight. The color green, afterall, has long been associated with life itself, for on a more basic level, what green really means, is food.

Just ask the many critters that depend on these plants for winter forage. Take the Greater sage-grouse for example, whose winter diet consists almost entirely of sagebrush. 

Among Pronghorn, up to 75% of their winter nutrition is derived from the plant.

While these animals are uniquely adapted for browsing sagebrush, the same chemical compounds that make them largely inedible for most herbivores, were utilized medicinally by Nevada’s Indigenous peoples as a treatment for colds and other ailments. 

Unless you possess that traditional knowledge, however, due to the toxicity of the plant’s oils, it is not recommended for human consumption. I suggest a good conifer needle-tea instead. 

While my personal favorite is spruce, several species of pines, as well as fir provide similar levels of immune boosting vitamins C and A, as well as beneficial antioxidants. 

Some species, such as Ponderosa pine are considered toxic, so be sure to do your homework, and make sure to accurately identify any plants you intend to ingest. 

To procure the needles, some of us need to go no-further than our own backyard, others will have to venture to higher elevations. 

If the road won’t take you there, you might try your hand at snowshoeing, and if you haven’t a pair of your own, you can rent some from the California Trail Interpretive Center, for up to a week, free of charge. 

If it’s too windy or cold to venture outside (human anatomy differs greatly from that of an evergreen shrub), take a cue from the Shoshone or Paiute peoples, who know all too well about surviving in a harsh, high-desert environment. 

In the ways of their tradition, winter was a time to enjoy the fruits of their labor, that being the dried seeds, pine-nuts and meat harvested throughout summer and fall. It was also a time for indoor projects, like the sewing of winter moccasins, and just as importantly, it was a time for leisure. 

Nights were often spent by the fire, wrapped in a rabbit-fur blanket, listening to grandfather tell stories told to him by his grandfather, and his grandfather before him. 

Now doesn’t that sound pleasant?”