First, the photo:


Men collecting tumbleweed. You assume that this is somewhere on the Great Plains, North Dakota maybe. But no. It’s Los Angeles.

The photo is from a New Scientist piece by Rowan Cooper in the 6/21/14 issue (entitled “Tumbling weeds” there).

This picture was taken in east Los Angeles, and shows a highway maintenance crew removing tumbleweed from a road. LA isn’t the only city under siege: Colorado Springs had its own tumbleweed invasion in March, as have parts of New Mexico and Texas.

Wikipedia on tumbleweeds:

A tumbleweed is a structural part of the above-ground anatomy of any of a number of species of plants, a diaspore [yes, as in diaspora] that, once it is mature and dry, detaches from its root or stem, and tumbles away in the wind. In most such species the tumbleweed is in effect the entire plant apart from the root system, but in other plants a hollow fruit or an inflorescence might serve the function. Tumbleweed species occur most commonly in steppe and arid ecologies, where frequent wind and the open environment permit rolling without prohibitive obstruction.

… In the family Amaranthaceae …, several annual species of the genus Kali are the most notorious tumbleweeds. They are thought to be native to Eurasia, but when their seeds entered North America in shipments of agricultural seeds, they became naturalized in large areas. They have been so successful that in the cinema genre of Westerns they have long been symbols of frontier areas. Kali tragus …, the so-called “Russian thistle” is an annual plant that when it dies, breaks off at the stem base and forms a tumbleweed, dispersing its seeds as the wind rolls it along. It is said to have arrived in the United States in shipments of flax seeds to South Dakota, perhaps about 1870. It now is a noxious weed throughout North America, dominating disturbed habitats such as roadsides, cultivated fields, eroded slopes, and arid regions with sparse vegetation. Though it is a troublesome weed, Kali tragus also provides useful livestock forage on arid rangelands.

Kali tragus has the botanical synonyms Salsola tragus, Salsola kali subsp. tragus. The genus name Kali has nothing to do with Hindu goddesses, but instead (according to the OED) comes from Arabic qalī, seen also in English alkali. It’s all about the salt, as are the alternative genus names (with Latin sal ‘salt’). Kali tragus grows in all sorts of places other than alkaline flats, but it flourishes there, where few other plants do.

Pictures of the plant in its other stages tend to show it in decidedly barren settings. Here’s a K. tragus blooming:


That’s about as pretty as it gets. Then the plant in its bushy green extravagance, when it is at least usable for fodder:


(Human figure added for scale.)

With the spread of hot, dry weather in the western U.S. comes the spread of tumbleweeds.

2 Responses to “Tumblin’”

  1. Debby S Says:

    In “The Worst Hard Time,” the arrival of “Russian Thistle” is connected to the intensive settlement and cultivation of the midwest — the settlement that led to the dust bowl. If I remember correctly, the “shipments of agricultural seeds” referred to in your post may have been Russian wheat, a variety of wheat some settlers from Russia were bringing with them because it was extremely hardy.

  2. Japanese knotweed | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] are ornamental or useful or both, but occasionally I look at invasives: recently, on privets and tumbleweed, and a bit earlier on monstrously invasive vines —  kudzu and mile-a-minute. Today, thanks […]

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