2-56. Tumbleweeds

Tumbleweeds have become an icon of film. When one rolls across the screen, the viewer knows that they’re looking at a desolate place where hope is lost and the future is bleak.

But it wasn’t until well after the Civil War that Americans even knew what a tumbleweed was.

Tumbleweeds are produced by many plants, but in the American West, it’s the Russian Thistle that’s responsible. Probably introduced accidentally through seeds planted along with Russian flax, Russian Thistles loved their new home and spread throughout the western United States and Canada.

They tumble for a reason: after the flowers have produced seeds, the plant dies, and the “ball” or “globe” breaks free from the roots, allowing the plants to roll away. As they bounce across the landscape, seeds fall out to hopefully form new plants.

While the plants can be eaten by wildlife, they are mostly a nuisance, and in some places, tumbleweeds are numerous enough to drift like snow, causing many of the same problems. Roads can become impassable and people have even reported being trapped in their homes by twelve foot walls of tumbleweed. They also clog irrigation and create a fire risk during exceptionally dry seasons.

So the next time you see a tumbleweed roll by on the screen, think about how you’re seeing a Russian plant spreading its seeds. There may not be hope for the people in the film, but the plants will be just fine.

Is this gas station doomed? (Photo by A. Balet)

Is this gas station doomed? (Photo by A. Balet)

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