SciSun: Back From the USSR   Leave a comment

Every western story has three things in common: A stranger with a mysterious past (is he – or she – hero, or villain?); a frontier or town or camp or fort or ranch – filled with untamed conflict, yet yearning for justice; and tumbleweeds, usually blowing across the street just before the high-noon gunfight. While all three are rock-solid parts of our wild-west history, none of these, probably, originated in the West: The mysterious stranger is, by definition, someone without an origin or a past; the untamed frontier is not unlike any other unknown land, attractive to adventurers, opportunists and low-lifes alike; and the Tumbleweed (Salsola tragus) isn’t an American native, but an invasive species that, through story and legend, has come to be accepted as Western heritage. Not bad for a weed that arrived hidden in a shipment of farm seeds.

Tumbleweeds (in various forms also Salsola iberica, S. pestifer, S. kali, etc), are actually Russian Thistle, a fast-spreading – yet in its native region, not an overpowering weed – found in the desert steppes of Mongolia. Sometime around 1880, farmers in the not-yet-state of South Dakota began reporting a never-before seen plant that seemed to appear from nowhere but would grow anywhere, almost doubling in size and numbers of thorns every week; and didn’t appear to be useful for anything other than crowding out native plants and cultivated crops. The seeds, it seems, had been mistakenly overlooked in a shipment of flax transported from Russia to the American midwest sometime in 1873 or 1874; by 1885, in response to hundreds of complaints from farmers who were being overwhelmed by the plants, a Federal Inspector was dispatched to the area and found about 35,000 square miles filled with the weed taking over open lands throughout the midwest and moving in every direction. If this had been an invasion, the tumbleweeds had won – or at least had a great head start.

“And what is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson. Born 1803; died 1882, probably never having met a tumbleweed.

“And what is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson. Born 1803; died 1882, probably never having met a tumbleweed.

While part of the native ecosystem on its home continent, in North America the tumbleweed has no natural predators. While it can be eaten, particularly as tender young shoots, by bighorn sheep; antelopes; ground squirrels; goats (of course!); and even horses and cows if they’re really, REALLY hungry, most animals prefer more succulent and tasty plants. During the dustbowl days of the 1930’s when parched, windy conditions devastated much of the central US and Canada, some farmers fed tumbleweeds to their cattle as there was literally nothing else to eat. Humans have been known to stew, marinate, or saute the young weed as a side dish, but you probably won’t find it on any restaurant menu; however tumbleweed cousins the beet and spinach are considered healthy and beneficial by most people over the age of 12. For children, the vegetables may as well be a weed.

Despite the minimal and questionable uses for tumbleweed including holiday decorations; temporary fencing; and curiosities (young, potted specimens are popular gifts in Japan. Who would have thought?), the aggressive plant continues to spread, largely un-checked, throughout the world: In the US, Alaska is the only state without the weed (yes, it’s found its way to Hawaii); the plants are abundant in much of Europe; Central and South America; Africa; countries of the Mediterranean; Australia and New Zealand; Canada; China and Japan (wonder how that happened?) Even radioactive soil can’t stop the onslaught – when nuclear testing was finally halted at the Nevada Test Site outside Las Vegas, the first plant to grow back was Russian Thistle. At a plutonium factory abandoned due to contamination, the hardy plants are thriving. We can only hope this won’t result in a giant mutant tumbleweed that rises out of the desert as an outrageous, horrific and overblown monstrosity set to devour Las Vegas. Which to the tourists, would just be another attraction.


Michonne Says: Sometimes when it’s windy those prickley plants chase you but they haven’t caught me yet. And they’re no good to eat, and the prickles get in your fur and sometimes you step on them and they hurt! Phooey.

Posted September 26, 2015 by ECOVIA eco-adventure® in SciSun

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