Grit Blogs > Nature and Gardening at the Edge

Tumbleweeds

What would a Western movie be without a few scudding tumbleweeds? Yes, they add to the atmosphere but beyond that, they are weeds! 

Stories are told of messages being tied to tumbleweeds, much like messages in a bottle to be found who knows where and when. Other stories tell how they stabilized blowing soil during the dust bowl years and actually help create drifts of soil. At one time, crafters gathered the larger ones and spray painted them for a natural looking Christmas decorations. They have also been blamed for spooking horses and various other mishaps.

There are several species that can be tumble weeds including the imported Russian thistle. During the growing season, they are just a weed. With autumn weather the stem breaks off near the ground and the wind takes the weed away scattering seeds as it rolls along. Since many species can tumble, the sizes range from small to 3 or 4 feet across. Some species form very round bush-like growth and tumble very well. Other species are not so rounded but do break off near the ground and blow very well in the wind. The rounded types seem more prickly and still manage to catch hold and lodge. Once dead, the plant may not decay for two or more years.

Besides reseeding themselves, they lodge in fences, shrubs and any other convenient place.  Many home and business owners make a regular patrol after high winds to gather up tumbleweeds and place them in trash so as to avoid the reseeding.

Famers sometimes burn tumbleweeds as a part of clearing irrigation ditches in the spring. Of course tumbleweeds collect in ditches as well as other places and can interfere with the irrigation system. Burning certainly eliminates them but can create other hazards as the burning tumble weeds can still blow about if a breeze comes up. On at least one occasion burning tumbleweeds spread a fire by floating on a ditch that was already flowing.

Occasionally people new to the west will refer to confuse sagebrush or other woody shrubs on the plains as tumbleweeds. This is an error as sagebrush and the more woody type shrub, while part of the landscape, do not break and blow about.

Is there any solution for tumbleweeds? Probably not. You can spray your own property to eliminate the tumbling types but living in a high wind area, you will likely get them from some distance away. If you are traveling in tumbleweed country and they blow across the road or lodge under your vehicle, don’t worry about it. They are quite brittle and have very little actual substance.  

Yes, they are part of the western landscape and even gave their name to a famous cartoon but they are really just weeds that become mobile and not really loved by anyone.