Common (Translated Scientific) Name: Shadscale Saltbush - Fourwing Saltbush - Mat Saltbush Great Basin Scrub Macrogroup
Colloquial Name: Great Basin Saltbush Scrub
Hierarchy Level: Macrogroup
Type Concept: This widespread cool semi-desert macrogroup centers in the Intermountain West of the U.S. The vegetation is characterized by open to moderately dense cover of shrubs (<2 m tall), both short shrubs and/or dwarf-shrubs, with a typically sparse herbaceous layer composed of perennial bunchgrasses. Dominant shrubs may include Atriplex canescens, Atriplex confertifolia, Atriplex cuneata, Atriplex lentiformis, Atriplex obovata, Atriplex polycarpa, and Atriplex spinifera. Dominant dwarf-shrubs may include Atriplex corrugata, Atriplex gardneri, Picrothamnus desertorum, Sarcobatus baileyi (Carson Desert), and Psorothamnus polydenius (sandy soils). Sometimes stands are codominated by Artemisia tridentata, Krascheninnikovia lanata, or species of Ephedra and Lycium. Some stands dominated by Grayia spinosa are also included in this macrogroup. Many other shrubs may be present, especially in transition areas with desert or montane scrub. Medium-tall and short perennial grasses often dominate the sparse to moderately dense graminoid layer, including Achnatherum hymenoides, Bouteloua gracilis, Distichlis spicata, Elymus elymoides, Hesperostipa comata, Leymus ambiguus, Leymus salinus, Pascopyrum smithii, Pleuraphis jamesii, Poa secunda, Pseudoroegneria spicata, Sporobolus airoides, and Sporobolus cryptandrus. The species present depend on the geographic range of the grasses, soil alkalinity/salinity, and past land use. A number of annual species may also grow in association with the shrubs and grasses, although they are usually rare and confined to areas of recent disturbance. Forb cover is generally sparse. This salt-desert shrubland macrogroup is matrix-forming in the Intermountain West. It forms large, small and linear patches in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts and extends east into the southern Great Plains. It occurs on gentle slopes and rolling plains in the northern Colorado Plateau and Uinta Basin on Mancos shale and semi-arid, windswept plains and basins across parts of central Wyoming. Elevations range between 1520 and 2200 m (4987-7218 feet). Sites can be found on all aspects and include valley bottoms, alluvial and alkaline flats, mesas and plateaus, playas, drainage terraces, washes and interdune basins, bluffs, and gentle to moderately steep sandy or rocky slopes. Soils are shallow to moderately deep, poorly developed, and a product of a semi-arid climate. Substrates are typically saline, alkaline, fine-textured soils developed from shale or alluvium. Infiltration rate is typically low. Soil surface is often very barren and interspaces between the characteristic plant clusters are commonly covered by a microphytic crust.
Diagnostic Characteristics: The macrogroup is characterized by an open to moderately dense shrubland composed of one or more Atriplex species, such as Atriplex canescens, Atriplex confertifolia, Atriplex corrugata, Atriplex gardneri, Atriplex polycarpa, or Atriplex spinifera. Other dominant or codominant dwarf-shrubs may include Artemisia longifolia, Artemisia pedatifida (very important in Wyoming, rare in Colorado stands), or Picrothamnus desertorum, sometimes with a mix of other low shrubs, such as Grayia spinosa, Krascheninnikovia lanata, or Tetradymia spinosa. Occasional individuals or small clumps of Artemisia tridentata ssp. wyomingensis may be present in some stands within this macrogroup but do not codominate.
Rationale for Nominal Species or Physiognomic Features: This is a diverse macrogroup with many possible dominant shrub species; however, there are two major types: shadscale and saltbush shrublands that dominate vast areas in the intermountain western U.S. Atriplex confertifolia is shadscale and Atriplex canescens is a common saltbush species that is representative of the many shrubby Atriplex spp. included in this macrogroup. Atriplex corrugata was chosen as nominal to represent dwarf-shrubs also characteristic of this macrogroup. Several other shrubs may dominate stands, but these are less diagnostic of this macrogroup, such as Atriplex gardneri, Artemisia pedatifida, Picrothamnus desertorum, or Grayia spinosa.
Classification Comments: This macrogroup is more broadly defined. Some Grayia spinosa-dominated stands occur on flats, toeslopes and coppice dunes that have a silty component to them. If they occur on deep sand or dunes, then consider a dune group. Stands in this macrogroup may grade into sparse vegetation macrogroups on shale barrens/badlands. Welsh (1957) observed that Atriplex corrugata stands were restricted to north and east aspects on Mancos shale, with south and west aspects nearly barren. This macrogroup may extend into the northwestern Great Plains (province 331), but further review is needed to clarify its relationship to Northern Great Plains Dry Mixedgrass Prairie Group (G331).
Similar NVC Types:
M118 Intermountain Basins Cliff, Scree & Badland Sparse Vegetation, note: "may share species, but badland vegetation is much sparser and has fewer species."
M171 Great Basin-Intermountain Dry Shrubland & Grassland, note: "shares floristics, including Krascheninnikovia lanata and various herbaceous species, but Atriplex spp. are not characteristic."
M086 Chihuahuan Desert Scrub, note: "may share widespread species, but typically has Chihuahuan Desert indicator species present."
Physiognomy and Structure: This macrogroup typically has an open canopy composed of facultatively deciduous, extremely xeromorphic, subdesert short and dwarf-shrubs often with a sparse to moderately dense herbaceous layer dominated by perennial graminoids.
Floristics: This widespread cool semi-desert scrub macrogroup is highly variable and ranges from almost pure occurrences of single species to fairly complex mixtures. The vegetation is characterized by open to moderately dense cover of shrubs (<2 m tall), both short shrubs and/or dwarf-shrubs, with a typically sparse herbaceous layer composed of perennial bunchgrasses with large open spaces between the plants (Blaisdell and Holmgren 1984). Dominant short shrubs may include Atriplex canescens, Atriplex confertifolia, Atriplex cuneata, Atriplex lentiformis, Atriplex obovata, Atriplex polycarpa, and Atriplex spinifera. Stands are sometimes codominated by Artemisia tridentata, Krascheninnikovia lanata, or species of Ephedra and Lycium. Dominant dwarf-shrubs may include Atriplex corrugata, Atriplex gardneri, Picrothamnus desertorum, Sarcobatus baileyi (Carson Desert), and Psorothamnus polydenius (sandy soils). Some stands dominated by Grayia spinosa are also included in this macrogroup. Other shrubs may be present, especially in transition areas with desert or montane scrub. Common associated species are Acacia greggii, Chrysothamnus spp., Encelia frutescens, Ephedra nevadensis, Ephedra viridis, Frankenia salina, Gutierrezia sarothrae, Krascheninnikovia lanata, Lycium andersonii, Lycium pallidum, Lycium shockleyi, Parthenium confertum, Psorothamnus polydenius, Purshia stansburiana, Suaeda spp., Tetradymia spinosa, Tiquilia latior, and Yucca glauca. Northward in Wyoming and Montana, the type is most often associated with shale foothills and badlands where soils are saline, but also on alkaline clays and silts with low infiltration rates. There, relatively pure stands of Atriplex gardneri or (in southeastern Montana) Artemisia pedatifida are found, with some Artemisia longifolia, Atriplex confertifolia, Krascheninnikovia lanata, Picrothamnus desertorum, and Tetradymia spinosa. Warm-season medium-tall and short perennial grasses dominate in the sparse to moderately dense graminoid layer. The species present depend on the geographic range of the grasses, soil alkalinity/salinity, and past land use. Species may include Achnatherum hymenoides, Achnatherum thurberianum, Bouteloua gracilis, Distichlis spicata, Elymus elymoides, Hesperostipa comata, Leymus ambiguus, Leymus salinus, Muhlenbergia torreyi, Pascopyrum smithii, Pleuraphis jamesii, Poa secunda, Pseudoroegneria spicata, Sporobolus airoides, and Sporobolus cryptandrus. A number of annual species may also grow in association with the shrubs and grasses, although they are usually rare and confined to areas of recent disturbance (Blaisdell and Holmgren 1984). Forb cover is generally sparse. Perennial forbs that might occur include Chaetopappa ericoides, Mentzelia spp., Sphaeralcea coccinea, and Xylorhiza venusta. Annual natives include Monolepis nuttalliana, Plantago spp., or Vulpia octoflora. Associated halophytes include Salicornia bigelovii, Salicornia rubra, and Suaeda species. Exotic annuals that may occur include Bromus rubens, Bromus tectorum, Descurainia sophia, and Salsola kali. Cacti such as species of Opuntia and Echinocereus may be present in some occurrences. Trees are not usually present but some scattered Juniperus spp. may be found.
Dynamics: West (1982) stated that "salt desert shrub vegetation occurs mostly in two kinds of situations that promote soil salinity, alkalinity, or both. These are either at the bottom of drainages in enclosed basins or where marine shales outcrop." However, salt-desert shrub vegetation may be an indication of climatically dry as well as physiologically dry soils (Blaisdell and Holmgren 1984). Not all salt-desert shrub soils are salty, and their hydrologic characteristics may often be responsible for the associated vegetation (Naphan 1966). Species of the salt-desert shrub complex have different degrees of tolerance to salinity and aridity, and they tend to sort themselves out along a moisture/salinity gradient (West 1982). Species and communities are apparently sorted out along physical, chemical, moisture, and topographic gradients through complex relations that are not understood and are in need of further study (Blaisdell and Holmgren 1984).
The winter months are a good time for soil moisture accumulation and storage within stands in this macrogroup. There is generally at least one good snowstorm per season that will provide sufficient moisture to the vegetation. The winter moisture accumulation amounts will affect spring plant growth. Plants may grow as little as a few inches to 1 m. Unless more rains come in the spring, the soil moisture will be depleted in a few weeks, growth will slow and ultimately cease, and the perennial plants will assume their various forms of dormancy (Blaisdell and Holmgren 1984). If effective rain comes later in the warm season, some of the species will renew their growth from the stage at which it had stopped. Others, having died back, will start over as if emerging from winter dormancy (Blaisdell and Holmgren 1984). Atriplex confertifolia shrubs often develop large leaves in the spring, which increase the rate of photosynthesis. As soil moisture decreases, the leaves are lost, and the plant takes on a dead appearance. During late fall, very small overwintering leaves appear which provide some photosynthetic capability through the remainder of the year. Other communities are maintained by intra- or inter-annual cycles of flooding followed by extended drought, which favor accumulation of transported salts. The moisture supporting these intermittently flooded wetlands is usually derived off-site, and they are dependent upon natural watershed function for persistence (Reid et al. 1999).
Atriplex corrugata-dominated shrublands are the most saline-tolerant of the Mancos shale plant communities studied by Branson et al. (1976). Atriplex corrugata can completely dominate these extremely saline sites (Branson et al. 1976). It is a true evergreen dwarf-shrub retaining leaves for several years, and branches are capable of rooting at the nodes. This plant utilizes winter soil moisture, beginning new growth in March when the soils are relatively warm and moist. It flowers in April, and by mid-July fruits are shattered (Branson et al. 1976). If the soils dry out in mid-summer, it can go dormant until the late-summer monsoon rains begin. Large areas of Atriplex corrugata died during the extreme drought of 2002 in the Four Corners area. By 2004, new seedlings were established and spreading; shrub cover recovered to approximately 50% of what it was before the drought. Atriplex gardneri-dominated vegetation is another saline/drought-tolerant example of the Mancos shale plant communities studied by Branson et al. (1976). Although very slow-growing, it can completely dominate these extremely saline sites (Branson et al. 1976).
In summary, desert communities of perennial plants are dynamic and changing. The composition within this macrogroup may change dramatically and may be both cyclic and unidirectional. Superimposed on the compositional change is great variation from year to year in growth of all the vegetation, the sum of varying growth responses of individual species to specific conditions of different years (Blaisdell and Holmgren 1984). Desert plants grow when temperature is satisfactory, but only if soil moisture is available at the same time. Because the amount of moisture is variable from year to year and because different species flourish under different seasons of soil moisture, seldom do all components of the vegetation thrive in the same year (Blaisdell and Holmgren 1984).
Environmental Description: This salt-desert shrubland macrogroup is matrix-forming in the Intermountain West and forms large, small and linear patches in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts. It occurs on gentle slopes and rolling plains in the northern Colorado Plateau and Uinta Basin on Mancos shale and arid, windswept plains and basins across parts of Wyoming. This macrogroup is comprised of arid to semi-arid shrublands on lowland and upland sites usually at elevations between 1520 and 2200 m (4987-7218 feet).
Climate: This is typically a macrogroup of extreme climatic conditions, with warm to hot summers and freezing winters. Climate is largely temperate and semi-arid with mean annual precipitation ranging from 13-33 cm. The period of greatest precipitation is typically in mid to late summer, although in the more northern areas, a moist period is to be expected in the cold part of the year. However, in Montana and Wyoming, approximately two-thirds of the annual precipitation falls in spring and early summer. In Colorado and Utah, over half the precipitation occurs in the late-summer monsoons as high-intensity thunderstorms. However, plotted seasonality of occurrence is probably of less importance on this desert vegetation than in other types because desert precipitation comes with an extreme irregularity that does not appear in graphs of long-term seasonal or monthly averages (Blaisdell and Holmgren 1984).
Physiography/landform: Stands can be found on all aspects and include valley bottoms, alluvial and alkaline flats, mesas and plateaus, playas, drainage terraces, washes and interdune basins, bluffs, and gentle to moderately steep sandy or rocky slopes. Slopes are typically gentle to moderately steep but are sometimes unstable and prone to surface movement.
Soil/substrate/hydrology: Soils are shallow to moderately deep, poorly developed, and a product of a semi-arid climate. Substrates are typically saline, alkaline, fine-textured soils developed from shale or alluvium and may be associated with shale badlands. Infiltration rate is typically low. In Wyoming and possibly elsewhere, inclusions of non-saline, gravelly barrens or rock outcrops may be present. In Montana, this type is found on gentle slopes, rolling plains and badlands in the northeastern Great Plains, as well as in the Wyoming Basin in extreme south-central and southeastern portions of the state. Across its range, the shallow soils of much of the area are poorly developed Entisols. Vegetation within this macrogroup is tolerant of these soil conditions but not restricted to it and can occur on level pediment remnants where coarse-textured and well-developed soil profiles have been derived from sandstone gravel and are alkaline, or on Mancos shale badlands, where soil profiles are typically fine-textured and non-alkaline throughout (West and Ibrahim 1968). On Mancos shale (and possibly other saline marine shales), stands may be restricted to gentler slopes and cooler north and east aspects, with steeper south and west aspects nearly barren (Welsh 1957). Many areas are degraded due to erosion and may resemble "badlands." Soil surface is often very barren and interspaces between the characteristic plant clusters are commonly covered by a biological soil crust (West 1982). Stands can also occur in alluvial basins where parent materials from other habitats have been deposited over Mancos shale and the soils are heavy-textured and saline-alkaline throughout the profile (West and Ibrahim 1968).
Geographic Range: The distribution of this widespread macrogroup centers in the Intermountain West of the U.S. from the Columbia Plateau south into the Mojave Desert and Sonoran Desert. In the north it extends east into the basins and plains across central Wyoming and Montana. To the south it extends from the Colorado Plateau across northern New Mexico into the edge of the southern Great Plains.
Nations: MX?, US
States/Provinces: AZ, CA, CO, ID, MT?, NM, NV, OR, UT, WA, WY
|US Forest Service Ecoregions (2007)|
Southwest Plateau and Plains Dry Steppe and Shrub Province
Confident or certain
Yellowstone Highlands Section
Confident or certain
Confidence Level: Moderate
Confidence Level Comments:
Synonomy: > Atriplex canescens (Fourwing saltbush scrub) Alliance (Sawyer et al. 2009) [36.310.00]
> Atriplex confertifolia (Shadscale scrub) Alliance (Sawyer et al. 2009) [36.320.00]
> Atriplex hymenelytra (Desert holly scrub) Alliance (Sawyer et al. 2009) [36.330.00]
> Atriplex polycarpa (Allscale scrub) Alliance (Sawyer et al. 2009) [36.340.00]
> Atriplicetum confertifolio gardnerii association (Rivas-Martínez 1997)
> Atriplici canescentis-Psorothamnetum polydenii association (Peinado et al. 2013)
> Atriplici confertifoliae-Sarcobatetum bailey association (Peinado et al. 2013)
> Atriplicion confertifolio-gardnerii Alliance (Rivas-Martínez 1997)
> Biotic Matrix of the Shadscale and Associated Communities (Fautin 1946)
> Dalea association (Daleetum polydenii) (Billings 1945)
> Great Basin Desertscrub, Mixed Shrub Series152.15 (Brouillet et al. 1998)
> Great Basin Desertscrub, Saltbush Series152.17 (Brouillet et al. 1998)
> Great Basin Desertscrub, Shadscale Series, Atriplex confertifolia Association - 152.121 (Brown et al. 1979)
> Great Basin Desertscrub, Shadscale Series, Atriplex confertifolia-Mixed Shrub Association - 152.122 (Brown et al. 1979)
> Great Basin Desertscrub, Shadscale Series152.12 (Brouillet et al. 1998)
> Great Basin Desertscrub, Winterfat Series, Eurotia lanata Association - 152.151 (Brown et al. 1979)
> Great Basin Desertscrub, Winterfat Series, Eurotia lanata-Mixed Shrub Association - 152.152 (Brown et al. 1979)
> Great Basin Desertscrub, Winterfat Series152.16 (Brouillet et al. 1998)
? Intermountain Salt-Desert Shrubland (West 1983b)
> Little Greasewood-Shadscale association (Sarcobatetum baileyi) (Billings 1945)
> Mat-Atriplex Association (Graham 1937)
> Mohave Desertscrub, Saltbush Series153.16 (Brouillet et al. 1998)
>< Other Sagebrush Types (408) (Shiflet 1994)
> Salt Desert Plant Communities (Thorne et al. 2007)
= Salt Desert Shrub (414) (Shiflet 1994)
>< Saltbush - Greasewood (501) (Shiflet 1994)
> Saltbush Desert Shrubland (Knight 1994)
> Saltbush Desert shrubland (Knight et al. 1987)
> Saltbush Scrub (Schoenherr and Burk 2007)
> Shadscale Community (Fautin 1946)
> Sonoran Desertscrub, Saltbush Series154.17 (Brouillet et al. 1998)
> Tetradymia Community (Fautin 1946)
> Vegetation of Bajadas, Hills, and Washes; Atriplex hymenelytra Scrub (Keeler-Wolf 2007)
> Vegetation of Lower Basins and Playas, Saltbush Scrub (Keeler-Wolf 2007)
> Vegetation of Upper Bajadas and Mountain Slopes; Shadscale Scrub (Atriplex confertifolia) (Keeler-Wolf 2007)
> Vegetation on Manco Shale (Welsh 1957)
> Winter-fat association (Eurotietum lanatae) (Billings 1945)
> Winterfat Community (Fautin 1946)
Concept Author(s): Faber-Langendoen et al. (2014)
Author of Description: K.A. Schulz
Version Date: 16Jan2019
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