Tumbleweed by gas station. Photo: A. Balet under a Creative Commons license.

The Tumbling Tumbleweed

The Russian thistle, a plant that often becomes the "tumbling tumbleweed." Photo: Forest and Kim Star under a Creative Commons license.
The Russian thistle, a plant that often becomes the “tumbling tumbleweed.” Photo: Forest and Kim Star under a Creative Commons license.

By Kerry Brophy Lloyd 

Most of us remember the opening scene in The Big Lebowski—when a tumbling tumbleweed rolls into L.A. and introduces us to the Dude. 

The symbolic weed rolled onto our screens long before this iconic moment in 90s pop culture.  

Tumbleweeds have starred in countless Western films, always representing the desolate, the dismal, the long-abandoned. 

Living in the West, I have to admire the tenacity of tumbleweeds. When faced with relentless wind and cold, I often flee inside. But tumbleweeds just carry on, and on, and on. Right into a fence. 

Perhaps because of Hollywood’s fame and glory, many people don’t realize that tumbleweeds are weeds. In fact, a tumbleweed can be any number of plants that, once mature, dry out and tumble away from the root. 

Tumbleweeds are deviously determined masters of adaptation. As the outwardly dead plant rolls along, its skeleton scatters living seeds or spores. Some plants will wait until reaching water to unload their contents like an alien spaceship in the night. 

In Wyoming, the invasive plant Russian thistle is most often what visitors see rolling across a lonely highway. 

Likely imported into South Dakota from Russia in the 1870s, Russian thistle has turned noxious, out-competing native plants for water and creating a mono-culture without adequate diversity for foraging wildlife. 

But Russian thistle isn’t the only villain in town, especially for landowners and managers trying to keep native rangelands healthy for livestock and wildlife. 

Carrie Peters, a conservation practitioner at The Nature Conservancy’s Heart Mountain Ranch in Powell, Wyoming, likens weeds to a hostile take-over. 

An invasive like spotted knapweed is especially high on her not-so-favorite list. This particular weed chokes out native plants and can quickly cover hundreds of acres, turning away elk and deer whose choice forage has disappeared. 

Worse, weeds are like National Lampoon’s Cousin Eddy—once they arrive, it’s really tough to get them to leave. 

Houndstongue, for instance, carries dozens of seeds that stick to everything—elk, cattle, horse’s tails, shoelaces. Like many weeds, the seeds survive passage through an animal’s digestive track and can sit on the ground for several years before germinating. 

Many weeds also have a very long taproot that reaches farther into the ground than native plants. 

Fighting weeds is a constant battle.  

The war is waged in many different forms, from the hands-on (sling blades and thick gloves), to the mechanical (tractors). Even the high-tech.  Peters is involved in a GPS mapping project to track and color-code data on invasive species. 

And while herbicides gave chemical treatments a bad name in the 1960s, many of today’s varieties are safe and targeted to avoid impacting other plants or animals. 

Used properly, says Peters, herbicides can be an effective tool, depending on the culprit. 

Another strategy is to focus on restoring disturbed areas to provide a haven for healthy native vegetation. On the Conservancy’s Tensleep Preserve in northcentral Wyoming, manager Trey Davis is reclaiming old roads by planting native seeds. 

In the end, fighting invasives in the West takes patience. Results may not be visible for years—a long wait when blood, sweat and tears are part of just about any weed eradication plan. 

We can all hope that someday, tumbling tumbleweeds are, like the Old West, just a thing of the past—or at least something we only see rolling across our TV screens.

Tumbleweed by gas station. Photo: A. Balet under a Creative Commons license.
Tumbleweed by gas station. Photo: A. Balet under a Creative Commons license.

Opinions expressed on Conservancy Talk and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Conservancy.



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  1. The Russian Thistle coming in a shipment of wheat seeds—a time when we bought wheat from Russia instead of the other way around. During the Dust Bowl and Depression people collected the tumbleweeds in stock tanks put a little salt water on them to make them palatable and fed them to livestock.

    In some replantings we did in a riparian area of teh Santa Fe River the weeds totally took over but kept wind erosion from destroying our native grass planting. For three years our native grasses started to thrive under the tumbleweeds and the weeds prevented the grass from drying out and being blown away. Now the grass is totally spread out and the weeds tumbled on by. This is the only good thing I have to say for the weed. We also have problems in New Mexico with Russian Olives, Siberian Elms and Salt Cedar—so before the scorge oif Putin we had Russian invasions that are equally unpleasant.

  2. We live in Central New Mexico on 10 acres of shortgrass prairie that we battled for 5-6 years on to rid of tumbleweeds and other noxious plants. We had fair success for 15 years until the last few years of drought and increased development and agriculture. In the last two years, despite keeping our own land pretty clear, the weeds blowing in have overwhelmed us and our native plantings, sometimes clustering so thickly they prevent us walking around our home. You can’t throw them away or burn them (high fire danger), and where they used to grow maybe as much as a 3-10 per sq ft, now it is often 100 per sq ft. I know this because we tried and failed to keep up with them. Our land has been transformed from wild grasses and flowers to a spiky unpleasant place. If anyone knows of a way to rid 10 acres of tumbleweeds w/o poison, I wish they’d let me know. We are now older and unable to take on hand-pulling 10 acres of weeds.

  3. Not only is this an obnoxious weed, it is also a major contributor to allergy attacks for those of us in the West. If you have tests done, I would imagine Russian thistle would show up as a real demon. AND it stays around for a significant part of the year. Pull it up while it’s small!!

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