Part cultural icon and part invasive nuisance, tumbleweeds have an intriguing and tangled history. You know, tumbleweeds — those twisted balls of dead foliage rolling across the open range and roads.
If you’re driving any distance this spring, you’ll see them rolling across the highways. Traveling on Highway 24 last weekend, I nailed a two-footer while bumping a few others out of my path.
Tumbleweeds first gained notoriety when the Sons of the Pioneers romanticized them in song back in the late ‘30s. I remember seeing my first ones in the early ‘50s. In the early spring, summer and fall when winds howled across roads in my native Sheridan County, tumbleweeds raced across the flatland. Incidentally, I recall singing along with the Pioneers, and I still remember the song well.
This plant is as much a symbol of the old Wild West as Wyatt Earp, cattle rustlers, the coyote and the rattlesnake. The image of the lonely rider and the ghostly shape of the tumbleweed bounding in silence across the endless plains has inspired a certain misty-eyed nostalgia even in folks who have never journeyed west of Kansas City — except to travel through our state to ski in Colorado.
In truth, this weed is a blasted nuisance. Even its Latin name (Salsola pestifer) identifies it as a menace.
The tumbleweed is also known as the Russian thistle. This plant was brought to the continent in the 1870s as a contaminant in shipments of flax seed imported to western Canada. By the turn of the century, the weed had a foothold from coast to coast.
The tumbleweed can survive and grow almost anywhere. It remains one of the hardiest plants in the United States. Unfortunately, no one has found a good use for this thorny weed.
The tumbleweed can cause problems for farmers and ranchers. This nuisance weed clogs irrigation ditches, catches and accumulates litter, disrupts traffic, causes fires, poses a health threat to some livestock and even breaks down fences on windy days.
In Kansas and other western states, thousands of man hours are spent each year clearing tumbleweeds from irrigation ditches and railroad tracks. In the spring, the weeds are fought with herbicides, and in the fall the dried plants are sometimes burned.
Fighting tumbleweeds is a constant battle. Nearly every breezy day they bound across the prairie, and every spring they sprout by the millions.
Although tumbleweeds have been in this country for nearly 150 years, no one has found a reason to cultivate this plant. One thing is certain, this nuisance weed is here to stay unless our plant scientists can find a use or method to eradicate the tumbling, tumbling tumbleweed.
So why not romanticize ‘em?
John Schlageck is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas. Born and raised on a diversified farm in northwestern Kansas, his writing reflects a lifetime of experience, knowledge and passion.