Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
A plant of western North Dakota and the counties along the east side of the Missouri River, winter fat also occurs from eastern Washington south to Kansas, New Mexico, and southern California at elevations up to 8,000 ft.
Winter fat is a small perennial shrub with a base of yellowish, fibrous wood with exfoliating bark. The base usually is only about four inches tall, but leafy stems up to 20 inches long grow from it each year. Early in the growing season, stems and leaves are densely covered with gray hairs, giving plants a silvery color. At maturity, the plants appear rust colored because the hairs turn orangish-brown. Leaves of winter fat are narrow and about 1 1/2 inches long. The tiny, whitish flowers are numerous and form spike-like clusters in the leaf axils on the upper half of the stem. Flowers lack normal petals and sepals; instead, two simple bracts with horny tips enclose the fruit.
Look for winter fat from May to July on dry clayey or chalky soils where alkali salts form on the surface. Winter fat is highly esteemed by western ranchers as a valuable forage plant, especially on winter ranges. Indeed, my records showed that the plant was two-to-six times more abundant where grazing was judged light or moderate than where it was judged heavy.
Winter fat is a member of the goosefoot family (Chenopodiaceae). This family contains about 1,200 species found mostly in temperate and tropical areas, but is especially well-represented in arid regions where some species provide valuable forage for hoofed animals. The family includes beets, chard, and spinach. Ceratoides means "like horns" and lanata means "wooly" in botanical Latin. The German botanist Frederick Pursh first described winter fat in his monographic work on the goosefoot family published in 1840.