Those tricky, tumblin' tumbleweeds

A giant tumbleweed rolls onto Stockton Hill Road near Airway Avenue, causing traffic to maneuver around it.

A giant tumbleweed rolls onto Stockton Hill Road near Airway Avenue, causing traffic to maneuver around it.

Did the headline on this article cause you to think of the Wild West, cowboy movies and a tumbleweed rolling down the only main street of a prairie town?

We think of the tumbleweed as American as apple pie. Guess what? It isn't. The tumbleweed is not a native American plant. It's a Russian invader. The tumbleweed came to America from the steppes of Mongolia. It is thought to have arrived with a shipment of grain.

Tumbleweed is a round, bushy, much-branched plant growing 1- to 3-1/2-feet high. The branches are slender and soft when young, woody when mature. The leaves are alternate. The first leaves are dark green, soft, slender and about 1 to 2-1/2 inches long. These drop off and the next set of leaves are short, stiff, spiny, and not over 2-inches long. The flowers are small, green-white or pink in color. Seeds are about 1/16 inch in diameter and shaped like a cone.

Tumbleweeds grow on dry plains, in cultivated fields, roadsides and waste places. You will find it mainly in grain-growing areas. It has a special way of broadcasting its seeds. It does not depend on birds or hitchhike on the fur of animals. When the tumbleweed matures, it breaks off at the base. Because it is shaped like a ball, it tumbles in the wind, scattering seeds wherever it goes. Once tumbleweed seeds are ripe, a layer of cells in the stem of the plant weaken, and it breaks cleanly away. At this stage, the tumbleweed is almost a perfect ball with about 250,000 seeds stored inside.

The tumbleweed seeds perhaps had been accidentally mixed in with some imported flax seed. Within 20 years, it had covered more than a dozen states. Tumbleweeds were soon worse than a nuisance. Tumbleweeds drove many farmers from their homes. It was so frightening that a legislator from North Dakota suggested that a wire fence be built around the entire state to stop the advance of the tumbleweed.

It seemed nothing could stop the tumbleweed, even fire. Because it is so light, the wind carried it over fire breaks to set fire to crops and houses.

While blowing every which way, tumbleweeds lacerated horses' legs. Anything that affected the horse was serious. In the American West, the horse was not just transport, it was also the basic source of power. Tumbleweeds became an environmental disaster.

The main reason the tumbleweed survived is agriculture. In the American Midwest, the tall prairie grasses would have made it impossible for the tumbleweed to roll any distance. As time passed, the grasses were replaced by ploughed fields. Tumbleweeds have followed farmers as they migrated around the world.

Tumbleweed, needless to say, is considered a pest and an invasive species. It has little, if any, practical uses. But it does have a few good points. The young shoots can serve as food for horses and cattle, but they will eat it only if nothing else is available. Scientists at Utah State University have found that tumbleweeds improve the soil. Tumbleweed trickles chemicals into the soil. These chemicals then make the nutrients in the soil more available to other plants.

One thing you can say about the tumbleweed is that it is a survivor. In southern Nevada, where many nuclear weapons were tested above ground, the tumbleweed was always the first plant to start growing.

I guess we'll be singing about those tumblin' tumbleweeds for a long time!