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Chasing Down the History of the Tumbleweed

The sight of a tumbleweed blowing in the wind is a scene that immediately evokes nostalgia for the American West– one half expects the theme from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly to begin playing somewhere in the distance.

Tumbleweeds symbolize desolation and empty expanses, the land just beyond the American frontier, which opens out into the unknown. Tumbleweeds are mysterious, with uncertain origins and unknown destinations, moving across the land at the mercy of the winds. They are the spirit of the cowboy– nomadic, lawless, rough around the edges. Yet for all that it encapsulates as a part of the American tradition, the tumbleweed’s origins are on the other side of the world.

Tumbleweeds, also known as “Russian thistle” or “wind witches”, originally developed in the arid grasslands near the Ural mountains in Russia, spreading from there across much of Asia and Europe.

In October 1880, the United States Department of Agriculture received its first letter mentioning the tumbleweed, which had been reported in the county of Bon Homme, South Dakota. The exact passage of the tumbleweed to the United States remains something of a mystery, however. Most sources propose tumbleweed seeds arrived in a shipment of flax; a few argue it was embedded in the wool of sheep. A few farmers in the late 1880’s were said to have believed that the introduction of tumbleweeds was a conspiracy designed to sabotage their land. Regardless, the tumbleweed traveled quickly across the country (aided by the transportation of cattle in railroad cars,) and, by 1885, sightings of tumbleweeds were being reported in California.

The tumbleweed, however, is not an entirely useless vagabond. Farmers used young tumbleweeds to feed cattle, while other frontierspeople burned tumbleweed to make soap, and the Navaho found medicinal uses for it (treating influenza and smallpox). Recipes utilizing tumbleweeds evolved in environments where the landscape offered little else, and some of these folkloric culinary traditions are being revived through recent interest in foraging for food.

The word “tumbleweed” in fact refers to a few different species, which share the property of being able to detach from their roots and be carried in the wind. The genus for many tumbleweeds (salsola) derives from the latin word for salt (“sal”)–a reference to the plant’s high salt tolerance. Yet there is something unintentionally poetic in what the plant has come to signify in barren landscapes, alluding to the way in which tumbleweeds seem to “salt the earth”– cursing the land with their stubborn roots.

Before becoming the familiar mess of tangled, dry branches we now recognize them as, tumbleweeds are small, light green shoots that sprout out of the ground, often with purple-red stems. As the plant matures, delicate pink and white flowers grow along their branches. Once the plant has finished growing (some grow to be as large as a compact car), a layer of cells forms at the stem and the tumbleweeds breaks off from its roots. Once a tumbleweed begins its undulating journey, it can disperse up to 250,000 seeds.

Tumbleweeds are an especially challenging entity because they grow easily in otherwise inhospitable areas– all they require is a bit of moisture and a temperature between 28º and 110ºF. In particular, they thrive in disturbed soil, which makes them an especially formidable opponent for farmers who till the land. (After the nuclear tests were completed in Nevada, tumbleweeds were the first plants to grow back.)

Tumbleweeds loom large in the American conscious– inspiring everything from artistic refuges to tiny homes to the Mars rover. For some, they are a source of despair– for others, a source of inspiration (there is a relatively stable market for growing and selling tumbleweeds overseas, where the plant offshoots are an exotic and sought-after item). Recent studies have even suggested that planting tumbleweeds may help remediate military test sites contaminated with uranium.

In the cities of the West– particularly the SouthWest– tumbleweeds are not an uncommon sight, turning up in busy city intersections, at odds with the modernity of cars and stoplights. They are an aspect of nature that cannot be tamed. As they continue their journey on towards the symbolic West, they seem to remind us of where we’ve come from– and all the places we have yet to go.

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