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Common Native Plants of the John Day Basin

Eight noteworthy and native common trees, shrubs and grasses that you'll find along the route.

Western Juniper: (Juniperus occidentalis)

Junipers are the dominant trees in this landscape, and most are the taller, Western Juniper-more tolerant of heat and drought than it's cousin, Rocky Mountain juniper. Juniper is a long-lived native tree that may have a lifespan of 100 to 4000 years. Its better qualities include insect-resistance and alleged medicinal use in incense. However, its vegetation is toxic if eaten. The tree reproduces sexually. Female trees produce blue berries with seeds that must pass through the digestive tract of a bird or other animal to sprout. Favorite carriers include Townsend's solitaires and a variety of sparrows. Lines of junipers often mark fences where birds perch after their meal. Juniper today is invasive and troublesome. Suppression of fire has allowed it to spread into grassland, changing habitat and decreasing grassland vitality. Control includes re-introducing fire and cutting or bulldozing down trees.



Ponderosa Pine: (Pinus ponderosa)

The other conifer that you'll find in uplands and in a few places along the river is the Ponderosa pine-also known as yellow pine. This tree is characterized by needles clustered in groups of three, and a yellowish bark on mature trees that smells a bit like vanilla on a warm day. Ponderosa pine was the premier lumber tree here in the mid to late 20th century. Most of the larger, older trees have been logged.



Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis)

Hackberry is a tree that has grown virtually unchanged in this landscape for the past 35 million years. It is a small, very tough-looking compact tree, with rough bark and an elm-like leaf. In this area, it is seldom more than 40 feet tall, and grows in groups or clusters, usually in wetter sites or along the John Day River. It produces a small, leathery fruit that resembles a cherry, and has a large pit. The fruit tastes a bit like a very dry persimmon. Hackberry is a favorite food of many birds.



Bitterbrush: (Purshia tridentate)

Bitterbrush is a dark green shrub that can be mistaken for sagebrush. Its leaves, like big sagebrush, has three lobes on each small, dark-green leaf. It is more "prickly" than big sage (see below), and a much darker green. This shrub is a favorite winter browse for deer and elk-and also a favored browse for cattle.



Big Sagebrush (Artemisa tridentate)

Big Sagebrush is a tall and light-green shrub with a distinctive odor when leaves are crushed or rubbed. The plant is more closely related to the herbs tarragon and wormwood than to culinary sage. (The sage used in cooking is actually in the mint family, Salvia…) Big sagebrush likes to grow in river bottoms and in rich alluvial soils. It likes wetter areas, and is often, in its native habitats, found with tall grasses such as Great Basin wild rye (see below).



Rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus nauseosus)

Rabbitbrush is a large family of shrubs that prosper in dry climates. In the John Day Basin, the most common variety is gray rabbitbrush-a variety with dull gray-green foliage and a bright yellow flower. Gray rabbit-brush is a low to mostly tall shrub covered with soft, gray, felt-like and dense hairs. The general shape of this shrub is open to rounded- or flat-topped. Plants range 50 cm to 2 meters tall and are abundantly branched. The numerous, erect stems are covered with persistent, dense hairs, giving the stem a grayish, felt-like appearance, (thus giving the plant its name). Gray Rabbitbrush is a potential source for rubber. The flowers are grazed by wildlife and livestock in fall. Both pronghorn and mule deer browse the twigs, while rabbits eat the leaves. This plant may be an aggressive weed on heavily grazed sites, and may also be found on disturbed fill slopes along roadways in the sage-grass steppe. Due to its silvery foliage and yellow flowers it has a tendency to draw butterflies and other pollinating insects.



Great Basin Wild Rye (Elymus cinereus)

One of the tallest and most impressive bunchgrasses, Great Basin wild rye can attain over 6 feet in height. This grass prefers seasonally wet areas, including areas near springs or seeps, and seasonal marshes. The blades of this grass are very tough, flat, and rough to the touch. The spikelets are very dense, and wheat-like in appearance.



Bluebunch Wheatgrass: (Agropyron spicatum; Pseudoroegneria spicata)

This bunchgrass grows in soft clusters up to 2 feet in diameter and ranges up to 2.5 feet in height. It is commonly absent in land abused by overgrazing, but can be found as a re-bounding plant population on the John Day Fossil Beds and other areas where livestock grazing has been limited or well-managed.


Medusa Head

Medusa Head is an invasive, non-native grass that destroys both wildlife habitat and livestock grazing. It is an annual with spiky seeds and awns that stick in feet, hooves, mouths, and ears of wildlife. This is only one of several pernicious, non-native plants that infest grasslands. Like other invaders, medusa head thrives on disturbed ground and is better adapted to fire than native grasses, sprouting quickly at the first moisture, and getting a head-start on native bunchgrass's ability to grow.

Oregon Paleo Lands  
Institute Center

2024 Summer Hours

Thursday - Sunday 


*we will be closed

one hour for lunch

Want to Volunteer?

The Paleo Lands Center invites you, to meet the public and school groups at our educational hub of the John Day Basin. Volunteers can serve as Board Members, Advisors, Center helpers and docents and help share exciting natural history exhibits, brochures, and books with visitors and schools.
Please Contact the Center at

541-763-4480 or for details


Road and Weather Conditions


*Please call or email if you would like to schedule your school group for a visit during the week. Thank you!


Contact Information

333 West Fourth Street

Post Office Box 104

Fossil, OR 97830
Phone: (541) 763-4480




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