The Truth About Tumbleweed
The Truth About Tumbleweed – Of the many different plants that can be found in America’s dry environments, there is one that is almost synonymous with the word “desert” – the tumbleweed. These plants, with the help of Hollywood, have become unofficial ambassadors of western frontier culture, and remind us of how unforgiving the desert can be. As we watch an old Clint Eastwood or John Wayne film, it is uncommon not to see a tumbleweed blown by the wind, which is usually accompanied by the emotional western flute soundtrack cliche.
There is a shocking and amazing truth about the American culture icon we call tumbleweed, however. The plant isn’t even native to American soil!
Tumbleweed, Salsola sp., and also known as Russian thistle, is originally from Eurasia. It was suspected to be brought over accidentally by Russian settlers during early American history. Seeds from the tumbleweed supposedly hitch-hiked on shipments of horse feed, was released, and has since then propagated and spread across much of the southwestern United States.
Tumbleweeds start their life history as a dispersed seed, which then finds a suitable substrate to germinate. Once anchored to the soil, the plant begins to grow fairly fast, reaching maturity in a single season. By this time, the plant is still herbaceous (fairly wet and soft). Once its flowers have been pollinated, it stops absorbing water, and begins to dry out. As it dries, it takes on a rounded shape, breaks away from the main stem, and tumbles with the wind to disperse its seeds (hence it’s name).
This advantageous reproductive strategy of Salsola sp. is also it’s main weapon that terrorizes native southwestern US habitats. Since its introduction, tumbleweeds have negatively reshaped environments and caused fragmentation of many essential ecosystems. They absorb water at significantly fast rates (a single plant can absorb up to 44 gallons!), which allows for increased chances of soil erosion. They also out-compete native plants for light and space resources. Because they are introduced, there aren’t many natural herbivores that feed on or exploit it, giving it a serious competitive advantage. Moreover, there are no commercial uses for tumbleweed, making it a very annoying pest plant.
Other than its merciless stronghold over essential resources, tumbleweeds can also pose a threat to human safety. Because they tumble across flat, wind-swept landscapes, which often have roads cutting through, vehicles are at risk from serious collision. They also are saturated with flammable oils, and often accumulate along fences and sides of buildings, increasing the chances of wildfires and danger to people.
The “American tumbleweed” is an example of unique type of media exploitation in the United States. As we watch a Hollywood western film using tumbleweeds to captivate audiences by establishing a suspenseful mood, it makes us look at the plant as a tourist attraction when visiting the desert. People expect to see tumbleweeds in the desert because it feels like it wouldn’t be a desert without it! There is a popular attitude of normality between tumbleweed and the American southwest, which causes people to turn their heads away from the underlying truth.
The truth is that Salsola sp. is a very, very, very bad plant in United States. It’s association with Hollywood has given it a disguise that prevents people from taking action to stop its proliferation. What is usually perceived to be a universal American icon, is actually an invasive foreign terrorist.