Perhaps no other plant is as synonymous with the American West as the tumbleweed. But they’re surprisingly new to North America, in fact, they’re an invasive species that didn’t show up until the very end of the “Old West” period. And they’ve become quite a problem over the years. Today we’re looking at the tumbleweed, how it came from the steppes of Russia to become an icon of the American West.
The period we now consider to be The Old West took place between the years of 1865 to 1895. It was a period of lawlessness, of fortune seekers, and western expansion. Perhaps no period of American history has been romanticized like the Old West. It speaks to our core values of rugged individualism and manifest destiny, immortalized in countless books and movies.
And perhaps nothing says “Old West” like tumbleweeds. Tumbleweeds have just become shorthand in movies and TV as a visual way to indicate that you’re in the west or at least parodying a western.
But here’s the thing – tumbleweeds aren’t native to the US. They aren’t native to anywhere in North America actually, they’re from Russia.
And they didn’t show up in the US until 1880. Meaning for more than half of the period we call the Old West, tumbleweeds weren’t a thing.
There are FAR more tumbleweeds around today than there ever were in the days of Jesse James and Billy the Kid, in fact, there are too many of them now.
Tumbleweed swarms have blocked traffic, swallowed up houses, even buried entire towns. And they’ve mutated into mega tumbleweeds that grow up to seven feet tall.
Seven feet tall and covered in sharp spikes and thorns, just for fun. Imagine one of those thing tumbling into ya.
Not to mention these mountains of dead, dry balls of tinder can turn a small wildfire into a freaking nightmare.
So how did this Russian weed become such a symbol of the Old West? And how do we keep it from destroying us?
I’ll be honest, I wanted to start this video with an animation of two tumbleweeds squaring off outside a saloon, and then a cowboy rolls by. We didn’t pull it off but I still felt like it was worth mentioning.
In October of 1880, a package arrived at the Department of Agriculture in Washington DC. In the package was a report documenting a strange plant that had appeared in newly tilled land in South Dakota.
Included in the report was a sample of this mystery plant from near the town of Yankton on the Missouri River.
The people at the Department of Agriculture said “neat,” and filed it away, rather unceremoniously.
But this is the first known report of tumbleweeds in the US. And for 10 years or so that was about it, but after a while many more samples started showing up.
One came from Aberdeen, more than 322 kilometers (200 miles) north of Yankton. Another came from North Dakota.
Next thing you know tumbleweeds became so widespread that one legislator in the 1890s even proposed building a fence to corral them.
As for how they got here in the first place, most researchers believe they arrived in South Dakota sometime in the 1870s. Likely in a flaxseed shipment because we were importing flax from Russia at the time.
And they knew fairly early on that this was from Russia, it’s actually called Russian Thistle, although the Russians call them perekati-pole, which means to “roll across the field.”
Pretty much sums it up.
In fact, because there’s always some kind of xenophobia involved, some farmers back then blamed Russian Mennonites in the area, saying they purposely spread tumbleweeds as revenge against their American neighbors.
The more anti-semitic farmers blamed the Russian Jews, who were mostly in New York at that time.
But those were scattered cases, for the most part, they weren’t controversial or iconic. No one seemed to care about them, they didn’t symbolize anything, they were just annoying plants. Then Buffalo Bill came to town.
Nope. Not that Buffalo Bill. Buffalo Bill Cody
William Frederick Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill, was basically a western version of PT Barnum, a consummate showman who toured the east coast with his immensely popular Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
Technically it was called Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show And Congress Of Rough Riders Of The World.
It featured sharpshooters, singing, dancing, circus acts, live buffalo, displays of horsemanship from all around the world, and even re-enactments of frontier battles and stories from his life.
He employed dozens of Native American performers and while his portrayal of Native Americans was stereotypical and inaccurate and probably would’t fly today, it was very progressive for its time, he wanted the audience to see how the Natives lived, what their families were like, not just represent them as savages.
And he advocated for Native sovereignty, saying, “every Indian outbreak that I have ever known has resulted from broken promises and broken treaties by the government.”
But he was also a showman, who made everything bigger than life, including a part of his show where he re-enacted on stage the first time he scalped an Indian. So, yeeeeeaaaaahhhhh….
But it’s hard to overstate how popular these traveling shows were in the days before movies and TV – this was THE thing when the show came through town.
Taylor swift joke
And people back east had been hearing all these tales from the frontier, the wild west, it was all over the newspapers and in the books of the day, and then Buffalo Bill came through town and put it right in front of them.
They could see with their own eyes all these cowboys and gunslingers and animals… and plants.
Yeah, as part of his world-building, Buffalo Bill dressed his shows with tumbleweeds. Granted, they were very new to that part of the world but maybe he thought the roaming tumbleweeds were an apt metaphor for the freedom of the wild west.
An early promotional pamphlet for the show in 1883 even described the tumbleweed as a Western symbol.
This and many other tropes he created became ingrained in the minds of people all over the US -and Europe! he toured there a couple of times, even performing for Queen Victoria and Kaiser Wilhelm II. Guy had a crazy life.
Larry McMurtry once claimed that at the turn of the century, Buffalo Bill was the most recognizable celebrity on Earth. That’s the kind of reach this guy had.
But by the 1910s, his show kinda fizzled out and he died in 1917. But in the decades following his death, as moving pictures became popular those tropes that he had spread all around the world found a new home, in westerns.
As historian John William Nelson told Texas Monthly in 2021:
“Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show is basically the proto-western. When film comes along, those become the kind of scenes that morph into what we think of a western now.”
The tumbleweed can represent the drifter, moving wherever the wind takes him. It can also represent the wildness of the story about to unfold. It can also indicate location: the West, specifically California.
You see one, and you automatically know you’re in the land of cowboys, gunfights, and miles of dusty lands.
In 1935, the movie Tumbling Tumbleweeds featured the song, “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” by the Sons of the Pioneers
So that’s how tumbleweeds became, like tumbleweeds, the American icon. But as I said at the beginning, it’s starting to take on a new persona – that of a dangerous invasive species.
It’s easily flammable. Which means that when they pile up, they can easily spark a new fire or significantly add to an existing fire, but maybe even worse, because they are made to roll and travel, they’re the perfect vehicles to spread the fire.
Often a flaming tumbleweed can jump over fire barriers or just get caught in an updraft and land hundreds of meters away, starting a whole new fire in a new spot.
Even when they’re not in flames, they can bounce across highways and scratch the hell out of cars, they can pile up and cause traffic problems.
In fact, on New Year’s Eve in 2019, five cars and an 18-wheeler got trapped by a pile of tumbleweeds that were up to 4.6 meters (15 feet) tall. It took 10 hours to clear the pileup and get traffic going again.
They piled so high that they reached the second floors of buildings and blocked entrances to about 100 homes. It literally smothered an entire neighborhood and took 2 days to clear them out.
To get to the bottom of why this is such a dangerous invasive species, it helps to look at the biology of the tumbleweed.
So it’s scientific name is Salsola tragus. But it goes by Russian Thistle, Russian cactus and also wind witch.
Wind Witch sounds like a badass name for a metal band.
Anyway, despite the names, it’s not actually a thistle or a cactus. Or a witch. It’s really part of the Amaranth family.
Amaranths include plants like beet, chard, saltbush, and spinach.
Their main superpower is that it’s great at exploiting loose or disturbed soil where there isn’t much other vegetation.
That made the Great Plains the perfect place for it to spread, because when farmers cut down prairie grasses and other vegetation so they could plant crops, they created a good home for the Russian thistle.
The plant starts off as a soft seedling that grows more woody and stiff and spiny as it matures, eventually growing into a large, round bush.
By the way, this stage of its life cycle, it’s actually edible, and is often used to feed livestock and some versions of it were made into stews in the Great Depression.
And then, just like other plants, it has to spread those seeds. And nature has come up with lots of ways for plants to disperse their seeds, some use other animals like birds, some make the seeds aerodynamic to catch a breeze and float them along.
What the Russian thistle does is it dies.
Beginning in late fall, the thistle dries out and dies. A cluster of cells at the base of the bush grow together and cut off the water supply to the rest of the plant, eventually forming a weak spot.
With all the water removed from the plant it now becomes very lightweight, and its large surface area catches as much of the wind as possible until it breaks off at that weak spot in the base, and it goes a-tumblin’.
For a tumbleweed, death is just the beginning.
As we’ve seen, the wind blows the thistle far and wide, every bounce knocking more of those 200 thousand plus seeds onto the ground, and the whole cycle starts up again when the rains come and open those seeds up.
This has proven to be an extremely effective survival strategy, especially on certain kinds of dry, flat landscapes like the Russian steppes and the American West.
But we’ve also done a lot as people to help them spread.
Since its seeds are about the same size as other cereal grains, it was difficult to separate them out mechanically. So, they would contaminate grain shipments. And thanks to the railroad, they were able to spread hundreds of miles with little effort.
Oh, and they could also float along canals and ditches, which also helped them spread.
And because of all that spreading, we’re now seeing all those problems I was talking about earlier.
By the way, if you’re hearing me talk about this rapidly spreading invasive species that’s swallowing up whole neighborhoods and you’re thinking to yourself that this can’t possibly get any worse… You haven’t been awake during the 2020s have you? Things only get worse!
Let me introduce you to Salsola ryanii. Also known as “monster tumbleweed.”
This is a hybrid tumbleweed that starts – starts at 2 meters high. That’s 6 feet for you imperialists.
It popped up fairly recently and at first scientists thought it would just die out, but much like that dorky photo of you from middle school that you thought you deleted from your Myspace account, it seems here to stay.
A study published in AoB PLANTS in February 2020 explains that the new species is a hybrid with doubled pairs of its parents’ chromosomes. This causes it to grow much bigger than regular tumbleweeds.
As the study co-author Norman Ellstrand says:
“Salsola ryanii is a nasty species replacing other nasty species of tumbleweed in the U.S.”
One other reason it grows so big is it tends to grow on the later side of winter. This means it’s still green in the summer and can take advantage of summer rains.
All of which means bigger tumbleweeds, bigger piles of tumbleweeds, and on top of all that, it’s destroying our soil.
According to a study in 2004, tumbleweeds may be what they call a cadmium hyperaccumulating species.
This means the plant prefers to take up cadmium from the soil and keep it in its leaves and stems. The plant may also remove high levels of oxalates.
All of which depletes the soil of nutrients and make crops even harder to grow.
So what can we do about them?
Certain herbicides are effective against them, but there are more sustainable ways to minimize their damage.
For one, you can stamp them out before the seeds start to spread. If you live somewhere that has a lot of tumbleweeds, pull them from the ground.
Some farmers are exploring a variety of biocontrols to get rid of them. These include a mite, two moth species, a stem-boring insect, a defoliating insect, and two fungus species.
Those two fungus species by the way, they were found on infected thistle plants in Hungary and Russia and scientists were able to isolate it to help control tumbleweeds.
Hopefully nothing this time. But our track record on these things has not been great.
Like in the 1930s when they were trying to control pests in sugar cane fields so they brought in cane toads from South America and just kinda let them loose in Florida.
Now there are thousands of them all over the state, which wouldn’t be a problem except for the fact that they’re toxic.
Yeah, they’re a real threat to any local animals that try to eat them, including pets. Don’t let your dog eat a cane toad, it will kill your dog.
Another invasive species in the south is Kudzu. It’s a vine native to China and Japan and was brought to the U.S. in 1876 for decorative purposes.
Now, it’s nicknamed “the vine that ate the South.”
It grows at a rate of 0.3 meters (1 foot) per day and overtakes everything from native grasses to mature trees. Once it completely engulfs a tree, it blocks sunlight and the tree dies underneath it.
And of course these aren’t just trees, they’re whole ecosystems for animals and insects, so there’s a domino effect that happens.
So you got the Kudzu swallowing forests in the south and tumbleweeds swallowing neighborhoods in the west.
Maybe someday they’ll go to war with each other for control of America. Whoever wins… We all lose.
But yeah, tumbleweeds. Barely even existed during the old west. Way over-exists now.
It really is amazing how much we think we know about years past that have been completely made up by pop culture. Like when I went down that Victorian rabbit hole a while back, it hit me that that was the same time period as the Old West. All those famous outlaws were just frontier Victorians.
All those gunfights in front of saloons were just arguments over arsenic-laced wallpaper and cocaine toothache drops.
Anyway, I hope you found Tumbleweeds as surprisingly interesting as I did and if you learned something and you enjoy learning things, you might want to check out today’s sponsor, Brilliant.