Friday, December 19, 2014

Darn Those Russians!

Friday December 19 2014

Salsola tragus, aka “Russian Thistle,” or Tumbleweed, is as ubiquitous in the West as barbed wire, and coincidentally the two go together like peanut butter and chocolate.

A native in the Ural Mountains in Russia, the plant seeds snuck over on ships in the late 1800’s from Russia apparently hiding amongst flax seeds, showing up first in South Dakota, and tumbling all over the West thereafter. While “Tumbleweed” aptly describes the entire plant’s existence and planetary purpose, I am also fond of the honorific “Wind witch”.

The tumbleweed is an annual plant that, once it matures, dries out and dies, breaks off at the base of the stem and tumbles away in the wind, efficiently flinging and dispersing its seeds along the way to take root in your soils, and then to ultimately shore up your barbed wire fences. (See Steph’s accurate cartoon depiction of tumbleweeds here)
and my short video of me running the gauntlet of them on an Idaho highway on a windy day!:

(or link)

Once the desert soil out here is disturbed - that is, as soon as you plow it up thinking you’ll have a fantastic self-sufficient green pasture, or, after a flash flood that scours the sand, or almost immediately after a burnishing wildfire, Russian thistle will be the first plant to move in and take hold. On the plus side, they are pretty - turning maroon in the fall; and if you didn’t have the tumbleweeds, you’d soon have sand dunes developing. But on the downside, they spread, and spread, and are virtually indestructible. One winter I uprooted a whole plot of them and tried to set fire to them - they wouldn’t burn! (Oh, but they will burn quickly when they are dried.) And they are sticker-y as hell.

Before I became more than casually acquainted with tumbleweeds, I thought I’d gather one to send to my artistic sister, who I was sure could make some spectacular work of art out of it. After I collected a handful of painful stickers trying to stuff one in a box, she also found a handful of stickers when she opened the box and tried to remove it; and she decided not to use it. “They are not the cute tumbly little things bouncing across the road. They are very pokey.” Now I know to wear gloves when I have to wrangle with tumbleweeds.

Out of all the tumbleweeds everywhere, this particular one caught my eye. It was a large one, hanging out with a barbed wire fence. It was so impressive, I thought I’d drag it home. The horses were impressed in different ways - not at the tumbleweed, but me, a human, dragging it behind me!

Sunny and Jose are alarmed

Stormy is not bothered.

Batman is bored

Dudley is (no surprise) hungry! He’s actually picking it up to pull off a prickly stem!


  1. I've seen the really big ones strapped to the back of RV's with Eastern license plates headed out of Idaho. I'm sure that is the Eastern version of a big rack.

  2. that video is maybe the funniest thing i've seen lately! lol... and naturally dudley would try to eat the things...

  3. When I was 12, I went on vacation to Taos, NM from my home in Mississippi. It was my mom, me, our next door neighbor, and her son, who was my age and my BFF. Maybe the adults had been west before, but it was all completely new to us kids. We whined to stop at every shitty gift shop across the great plains, and we spent every bit of allowance money we had on tacky faux-Indian souvenirs, and we ate Southwestern Mexican food for every single meal, and we brought tumbleweeds home.

    Our mothers were like "lol what no way" but we whined and whined. The adults protested that there was no room in the minivan, and the kids swore up and down that we'd give up OUR living space to bring our tumbleweeds home. So each of us rode 988 miles sitting side-by-side with a tumbleweed in a plastic garbage sack. Max was in the middle bench seat and I was in the back cargo area. The moms kept asking if we wanted to throw them out, but of course that just made us stubborner, and by god we got them home eventually.

    Of course we didn't want them anymore, and I think we immediately ignored them, or maybe Max's goat ate them, but the point is (insofar as there is a point to this story): yeah, they're some prickly SOBs. I wish we'd thought to strap them to the roof of the van. Sigh.

  4. Oh saw the "Russians" in your title & thought of my "local" Russian construction workers! :-) As to the lowly tumble weed... I did not know their history! But in CO, we used to gather them - carefully - spray paint them sliver or white, add ornaments & hang them in large rooms for parties etc. They did actually look quite nice :-) Love the photos!

  5. Didn't know the history behind them but I remember seeing them years ago on my first trips to Arizona. They would come tumbling across Black Canyon Freeway in Phoenix. Don't think they're probably there anymore with the way it's built up but who knows. Love the video.

  6. Fantastic photos. Tumbleweeds are sort of scary. We don't have them here (yet).

  7. Wonder what would happen if they migrated east? Kind of like Kudzu, I fear. Those tourists carting them home better be careful.