“Wow, everything is so green,” I heard visitor after visitor comment. “Yes,” I’d reply, “but it’s not grass. It’s Russian thistles that are growing, also known as tumbleweeds.” And I’d go on to explain that the wet weather had helped the stickery nuisances keep germinating late into the fall and grow into a bumper crop. And so they have. There are tumbleweeds everywhere, what with recent strong winds volleying them back and forth across the lands as if in some kind of strange nature game.
I hate tumbleweeds. I especially hate them on my patio, in my window wells, and in my poor example of a flower garden. Already this year I’ve spent dozens of hours fetching them out of nooks and crannies, piling them in fire pits and torching them into oblivion. Tiny scratches on my arms and legs are proof that the dry orbs are holding their own in their battle against my efforts to make the desert bloom with anything besides cheat grass, wild mustard and the dastardly tumbleweeds. It seems that just as soon as I get them cleared from the yard, we have another one of those wind events that blows more of them from the outer reaches of the desert, only to fill up my yard again.
I’m not the only person that shares these sentiments. Just the other day I was driving into town and I saw a guy with a pitchfork angrily tossing tumbleweeds from the front of his campground up and over the neighboring fence, as if to put them back where he had thought they’d been allowed to grow. Weed control is a time-consuming effort in these parts, and it’s frustrating when you have to deal with the pests you don’t grow yourself.
Tumbleweeds have a long and storied past in the West. One account of their American origin claims that they were mistakenly brought to our continent in a bag of flax seed carried by Russian immigrants in the early 1870s. The immigrants had arrived in southern South Dakota, and when they planted their flax they unwittingly planted the tumbleweeds. The botanical Salsola kali (or its close cousin) was therefore unleashed on the plains of the West, to spread as fast as the iron horse could carry them. As the spiny seeds were picked up in train wheels, they were distributed along the track network, sprouting new seeds and letting the wind sow them in the wide open spaces. Within 20 years, tumbleweeds had taken root from coast to coast, particularly in dry and salty soils.
This botanical documentation was made in 1893 and 1894 by Professor Lyster Hoxie Dewey, who hailed from Michigan and worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. While he recognized the plant’s devastating potential way back then, his warning insights drew little notice. I’m not sure anything could have been done to stop or slow the tumbleweed’s spread anyway. I can’t seem to do anything about it at my place, even when I take a hoe to the young shoots each spring and throughout the summer.
This year’s crop of tumbleweed is coming up like feathery fringe in the cracks of our flat, dry desert where the seeds have lodged. Precipitation that drains into these natural furrows gives the weeds an additional growth boost. At an inch high, the tender shoots are almost pretty. And I’ve come to learn that they are edible at this stage.
Yes, you can pick them for your salads and eat them raw, or you can cook them into tasty meals. I’ve found recipes on the Internet for Russian thistle broth and for steamed Russian thistle. I even saw a recipe for tumbled rice and Russian thistle. Yum, yum.
So I guess there is one consolation about these hardy nuisances that are the stuff of cowboy ballads and botany papers: If we can’t beat ‘em, at least we can eat ‘em.