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Welcome Home: The Steppe

By: Sierra Laverty, Adult Education Specialist | 03/04/2021

Welcome home! You live in a rare, complex ecosystem. The water you drink is the result of a 9-million-year old lake. The air you breathe is the output of hundreds of miles of sagebrush to the south, and young forests to the north. The food you eat is diverse and rich, owing its start to the most valuable soil type in the world.

For Southwest Idaho residents, there is literally no place like home.

The Boise Metropolitan Area is located in the Great Basin Sagebrush Steppe. While many Idahoans don’t understand what that entails, it affects nearly all parts of our day-to-day lives. The Idaho Botanical Garden is inviting you to look closer at our little corner of the Sagebrush Steppe over the next two years, as we introduce new classes, exhibits and other shenanigans that center on something we all have in common: home.

In this article let’s start with the word steppe. Steppes are fairly dry ecoregions with mostly grasses or shrubs. If that sounds drab to you, we promise, it’s not. The roots of human civilization, including advancements like agriculture, the domestication of horses, and the wheel, developed in a steppe region. Humans have used steppe regions to move around the globe, through Asia, the Bering Strait, the Rockies, to the tip of South America. The silk road winds through one of the largest steppe regions on earth. The majority of the world’s grain, arguably our most important food group, is grown in steppe regions. Major wars from the Crusades to current conflicts have taken place on steppe soils.

Humanity’s past and present are intertwined with steppes.

North American steppes are home to fascinating (and cute) animals both enormous (like the buffalo) and miniature (like the pygmy rabbit). The brilliance of South African steppe plants like Gazania, Arctotis and Osteospermum make other garden annuals like geraniums and petunias look drab in comparison. 

 


Arctotis fastuosum, a South African flower that grows as an annual in Southwest Idaho.


The vast plains of central Asia that Gengis Khan’s horseman army once rode upon. The remote and captivating landscapes of South Africa that store “nearly a tenth of the world’s vascular plant diversity”. The mesas of Patagonia that lay at the feet of one of the most breathtaking mountain ranges. Tallgrass prairies of the American Midwest that are teaming with complex life. The solitude and expanse of the American Intermountain West.
Steppe regions are filled with grandeur and intrigue. But what are they, exactly?

Steppes are a type of ecosystem located in specific parts of the world with similar climates and plants. They have fairly flat geography, always adjacent to mountain ranges. Steppes can be found at high altitudes (like the Colorado Plateau) or nearly sea-level (like the Patagonian steppe).

Steppes are semi-arid, temperate, grass and shrub dominated ecosystems.

Let’s define steppes by what they are NOT. Steppes are:

🌱 Not wet enough to be a forest
🌱 Not cold enough to be a tundra
🌱 Not dry enough to be a true desert (like the Sahara)

 


The backdrop of the Idaho Botanical Garden is the Sagebrush Steppe.

 

There are only a handful of steppe regions in the world, and if you’re lucky enough to live in one, it’s well worth your time to explore it. Learning about the native flora and fauna (plants and animals) can teach you how to grow plants that thrive in a steppe environment. We’ll be digging in to answer some of the bigger questions about our home here in Southwest Idaho, like where does our water come from? How is climate change affecting us? Why is Idaho an agriculture-focused state? And does living in a steppe region affect urban gardening? You can follow our journey here on our blog, through our posts and videos, classes and our upcoming exhibit, Welcome HomeFrom one steppe resident to another, we are lucky to live here!

Learn more the steppe through spring classes:

🌱 Succulents & Cacti for Idaho’s Gardens
🌱 Treasures of the Boise Front
🌱 Bird-Friendly Gardening
🌱 Wildflower Walk
🌱 Native Plants for Your Yard

Read (and listen to) more about steppes:

🌱 Steppes: The Plants and Ecology of the World’s Semi-Arid Regions
🌱 Prairiebreak Blog

🌱 The Kazakh Steppe: Conserving the World’s Largest Steppe Region
🌱 In Defense of Plants: The Botanical Treasures of Steppes
🌱 New! In Defense of Plants: The Art & Science of Rock Gardening
🌱 Science Blog: Unfolding 40 Million Years of Asian Steppe History

Sources

Steppe (National Geographic)

Steppes: The Plants and Ecology of the World’s Semi-Arid Regions, Denver Botanic Garden