Tumbleweeds: The Truth Behind the Folklore

  1. Tumbleweeds begin their lives as little green shrubs called Salsola tragus, aka Russian thistle. There are several other species that turn into "tumbleweeds," but this particular one is an icon of the American West. 
  2. The death of a Russian thistle marks the beginning of its reproductive cycle. In winter, it breaks off at the stem and begins its journey as a tumbleweed blowing around the desert spreading seeds as it bounces along. Tumbleweeds can release up to 250,000 seeds that can rumble through frontier lands for years.
  3. Tumblweeds are edible, and are actually quite palatable! While the plant is young, it can be cooked in the same way you cook collard greens. It is said that much of America's cattle were saved from starvation during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s due to their ability to eat the invasive thistle.
  4. Tumbleweeds aren't native to the U.S. They accidentally arrived in South Dakota in 1870 in a shipment of flax seeds from Russia. Funny to think that such a staple in American West folklore is based on an invasive species. (It could be argued that cowboys are an invasive species, so perhaps it's fitting.)
  5. By 1895, just 35 years from the time they arrived in South Dakota, tumbleweeds reached the coastlines, from New Jersey to California.
  6. In the times before plowed fields, tumbleweeds would have been stopped in their tracks by native prairie grass. But without these grassy barriers, tumbleweeds can roll about the landscape, haunting farmers wherever they go. 
  7. People can become trapped in their homes and cars by giant waves of tumbleweeds. Uncovering your house from a wall of giant, thorny and highly flammable weeds sounds considerably worse than shoveling snow from your driveway.
  8. At ground zero of Southern Nevada's nuclear test sites, tumbleweeds are always the first plant to grow back. Apparently, two of the planets most majestic species, cockroaches and tumbleweeds, will re-inhabit the earth in the event of a nuclear fallout. 

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