Tumbleweed (not native)

Salsola tragus

spiked stem

See them tumbling down
Pledging their love to the ground!
Lonely, but free, I’ll be found
Drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds

Tumbling tumbleweeds – an iconic image of the Old West, along with wild mustangs, wagon wheels and Billy the Kid.  In truth, the tumbleweed (or Russian thistle, Salsola tragus) is not native. It was introduced into the United States in the 1870’s – about the time the Santa Fe Railroad replaced the Santa Fe trail as a major transportation corridor westward. Since then, the plant has tumbled rapidly through the west, and into cowboy songs and movies, at the same time becoming one of the most noxious weeds of dry rangeland.

A tumbleweed is a prickly sphere. Flowers are tiny and lack petals, but a colorful collar develops around each small seed pod, giving the appearance of blooms. Ultimately, the entire plant breaks free from the ground and is tumbled by the wind, fragmenting the branches and dispersing the seeds of future plants. One plant may have tens of thousands of seeds.

Other Common Names:

Russian thistle, Prickly russian thistle

Description 4,59,306

Tumbleweed is a rounded, much-branched annual plant usually four feet (1.2 m) or less in height, with several main stems arising from a taproot. Young growth is green and somewhat pliant; older leaves and branches are stiff and spinescent. Stems are ridged and often striped with red. Leaves are narrowly linear, almost cylindrical, narrowing to a spine-tipped point that becomes rigid and painful with age.

Flowers are inconspicuous or invisible without magnification, solitary at nodes; they are subtended and hidden by three leaf-like bracts. The bisexual flowers lack petals, having only sepals, five stamens and one pistil with a forked style. The five small white to greenish sepals cup the superior ovary, their tips forming a tent around the style.  Blooms are generally present between July and October.7

The fruit is a dry, thin-walled, one-seeded structure. As the fruit matures, the bases of sepals develop wings; these overlap and form a broad collar around the fruit. When young, this collar is translucent white, sometimes tinged with shades of yellow and pink. The collar matures brown with darker veins.

close up of spike on branch
white flower on spiked branch
small bush on ground

Distribution

Tumbleweed is a Eurasian species, thought to have been accidentally introduced into South Dakota in the 1870s, probably as a contaminant in flaxseed.23,306 Since then, it has tumbled across the country and is now listed as a noxious weed in 46 states.67 It is a plant of dry, disturbed ground, including cultivated fields, eroding slopes, deserts, vacant lots and roadsides.7,11,306 In North America it is found throughout most of its potential range.306 In California it is found primarily below 9200 feet (2800 m),
along the coastal  strip south of Monterrey Bay and in the Central Valley,

In the Reserve, tumbleweed has historically been common along the freeway berms, the Pole Road and the dike – areas currently inaccessible because of the restoration. Whether tumbleweed is being exterminated in these areas, or whether it will rebound after the disturbance remains to be seen. At present (2018) plants persist on the Stonebridge mesa and, in spite of eradication efforts, a few plants can be found north of the Santa Carina trailhead.

Classification

Tumbleweed is a dicot angiosperm in the goosefoot family, Chenopodiaceae.2 Plants in this family are often succulent or scaly; many appear weedy; many are salt tolerant. Typical flowers are tiny, greenish and lack petals.11,34,44,310 The goosefoot family includes well-known edible species such as chard, beets, and spinach, as well as marsh plants like pickleweed (Salicornia pacifica and fat hen (Atriplex prostrata).

This family is currently under study and genetic evidence may result in the Chenopodiaceae being merged with the related Amaranthaceae.41,44,143

From the images and descriptions in the literature, tumbleweed is similar to Southern Russian thistle (S. australis), distinguished mainly by small differences in size, by the shape of the smaller sepals.2 and by the tendency to “tumble”.4 Some authorities consider the two conspecifics.11,67,400 Although not on the Conservancy plant list, two confirmed specimens of southern Russian thistle have been reported from the Reserve.437 Without having seen them both side-by-side, I doubt I could distinguish them.

Alternate Scientific Names:

Salsola kali, Salsola therica, Salsola pestifer, Salsola australis

Jepson eFlora Taxon Page
white flower on spiked red branch
spiked plant with white flowers on branches
close up of spikes

Ecology 4,5,11,59

Tumbleweed has a unique strategy for seed dispersal. Weak spots in the stem, near the base of the plant, become brittle with age and a gust of wind causes the plant to break away. Without an anchor, the large surface area and relatively light weight allows tumbleweed to role and bounce along the ground, shedding small branches and their attached seeds – like a giant salt shaker. Since a single plant may shed 20,000 or more seeds,5 it is little wonder these plants colonized vast areas of open rangeland very quickly.

white flower
dried out bush
dried out bush

Human Uses

We found no local records of California Indians using tumbleweeds. To the east, the Navajo used tender young sprouts and roasted seeds for food. An infusion of ashes was used as a treatment for smallpox and influenza, and a poultice of chewed plants was applied for ant bites and bee and wasp stings.282

In the modern West, tumbleweeds are becoming popular for Christmas decorations. Chandler, Arizona builds its annual Christmas tree from hundreds of tumbleweeds, attaching them to a 25-foot frame, spraying them white, adding glitter and stringing them with more than a thousand lights.441

Tumbleweed snowmen are made from stacked tumbleweeds.  Add  “a button nose, a corn cob pipe and two eyes made out of coal”, and you have a melt-proof Frosty. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, a 14 foot tumbleweed snowman is a Christmas tradition, welcoming travelers along Interstate 40.442

white flower on spiked stem
snowman
green stemmed plant

Interesting Facts 41

Cares of the past are behind
Nowhere to go, but I’ll find
Just where the trail will wind
Drifting along with the tumblin’ tumbleweeds

Tumbling Tumbleweeds was originally written by Bob Nolan who, at the time, was working as a caddy in Los Angeles. It was recorded in 1934 by the Sons of the Pioneers and was made famous by the 1935 Gene Autry movie of the same name. The Western Writers of America named it #8 in the top 100 Western songs of all times. (Ghost Riders in the Sky is #1).

small white flower on spiked stem
white flowers on spiked stems
field of spiked stems

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