In A Nutshell
A circular, brown weed rolls around like a ball in a barren desert—tumbleweed. The plant is an icon of the American West, helping to capture the popular imagination of the region. But the same dead weed roams around Russian landscapes as well, and that’s because tumbleweed isn’t native to the American West at all; it’s Russian thistle.
The Whole Bushel
Tumbleweed is an icon of the American West, a staple in Western paraphernalia. It’s also an invasive species. The plant is not endemic to America, but rather the steppes of Russia.
Just how tumbleweed, or Russian thistle (Salsola tragus), managed to reach the US remains something of a mystery. One theory suggests that the plant had been introduced by malevolent Mennonites; another theory suggests that the weed was accidentally introduced by Russian immigrants through contaminated flax seed in the 1870s.
Whatever the case, the Russian thistle proved extremely adaptable and more than a little bothersome. The outbreak began in South Dakota, receiving government attention by 1880. The infestations were menacing; some farmers were reportedly forced to abandon their homes. It wasn’t long before the weed spread to Canada and other states. By 1885, it had even reached California. Today, the plant is found to some degree in every state save Florida and Alaska.
A seed needs scant moisture to grow, and one plant can produce up to 250,000 seeds. The thistle can grow up to 90 centimeters (36 in) high. After maturing, by autumn, a gust of wind will break the thistle and send it rolling. These rolls will serve to scatter the seeds, which will also grow, break, and roll: rinse and repeat.
Other than being overwhelmingly pesky, build-ups of Russian thistles can cause fire hazards. Russia, Turkey, Uzbekistan, and the US are collaborating to combat the weed through biological warfare. Weevils, fungi, moths, or mites that prey on the weed in Eastern Europe may hold the key to fighting off Russian thistle, but the US has yet to approve introducing the species.
Though Russian thistle is incredibly invasive and annoying for one’s lawn fare, it’s not all bad: In the 1930s, starving animals had little else to eat as a result of the Dust Bowl. The thistle is also a staple in cattle, sheep, and bird diets.