The common name, Winterfat, refers to this plant's usage as an important winter forage plant for wildlife and livestock. Ceratoides means "like horns" and refers to the horny tips in the flowers that enclose the seeds. Lanata means "wooly" in reference to the hairy appearance of the branches, leaves and fruits. The family name Chenopodiaceae is derived from chenos meaning "goose" and pod meaning "foot" and refers to the shape of the leaves of some members of this family. This plant is also called white sage or winter sage.
Winterfat is a compact perennial shrub that grows to about three feet. The base of the shrub has yellowish, fibrous wood with flaky or exfoliating bark. This base is about four inches tall. From this base long stems grow each year. The stems, branchlets and leaves are covered with dense long hairs that give the plant a silvery appearance. Leaves, with inrolled margins, are linear or lance-shaped (lanceolate), and they arise alternately along the stems and branches, and range from 3/8 to 1 _ inches long. Flower clusters are borne in leaf axils on the upper portion of the stems. Small spikes of male and female flowers are arranged separately but on the same plant. This type of arrangement is called monoecious, meaning "one home" meaning that both the male and female flowers are borne on one plant. Generally, there are two to four male flowers in a small clusters, while there are many female flowers borne along a short stem. The flowers lack normal petals and sepals. Two simple bracts with horny tips enclose the fruit at maturity. Even the fruits have long hairs. Winterfat blooms from mid-spring to summer. Fruits may remain on the plant thru the winter.
This plant is found in the West, from eastern Washington to western North Dakota, and south to Kansas, New Mexico and southern California. Winterfat also is found in Canada up to the Yukon. The plant occurs below 8,000 feet in elevation. Winterfat grows in a variety of soil types, from dry clayey soils, alkaline flats to sandy areas.
Winterfat is one of about 1,200 species in the Goosefoot Family. The family includes beets, Swiss chard and spinachto name a few cultivated plants.
The plant was first described by a German botanist, Frederick Pursh (1774 to 1820) in a monogram of the goosefoot family published posthumously in 1840. He is also an author of one of the earliest floras for North America.
Navajos parboiled the leaves and ate them to relieve the expectoration of blood. Winterfat and rabbitbrush were thrown onto hot stones in sweat lodges for aroma.
Differences in the salt content of the soil show up in the leaves of winterfat. The more salty the soil, the shorter, thicker and hairier are the leaves.
The protein content of Winterfat is close to alfalfa, making this a valuable forage plant. On lightly grazed ranges, Winterfat exists, but on heavily overgrazed ranges, Winterfat may be absent.
The seeds of Winterfat can survive low temperatures, as low as 22 degrees Fahrenheit. Ice crystals that form within the cell walls of the seed would kill other seeds at this temperature, but not Winterfat seeds. The flat, teardrop-shaped seed has the root tip at one end and is covered with a very thin seed coat. The seed has little food reserves, so it needs to be on or near the sod surface to germinate and survive. The roots grow deep, almost three times as long as the shoot growth. This enables the plant to survive in areas with low soil moisture.
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