Although there are quite a few symbols that call to mind the frontier history of the American West—ten gallon hats, spurs, and low-slung six guns—nothing quite says dusty old cowboy town like a tumbleweed, well, tumbling by.
While the tumbleweed might be synonymous with the wild west, it isn’t native to the American West (or even anywhere in the entire North, Central, or South American land masses for that matter). The invasive weed hitched a ride with Russian immigrants in the late 19th century. The immigrants brought flax seed from their home country and those seeds happened to be contaminated with the seeds of the weed Russian Thistle (Salsola tragus).
By the time anyone even noticed the weed spreading it was essentially impossible to control. One full-grown thistle contains around 250,000 seeds, and when the plant is fully mature it dries out, snaps off its stalk, and tumbles in the wind (quickly spreading the hardy and numerous seeds over a large area). Further, the plant requires very little precipitation and happily grows in adverse conditions.
Modern ranchers find the weed to be quite an annoyance as the weed displaces grazing grass and the dried up tumbleweeds gather along fences and buildings, thus posing quite a fire hazard, but we do owe the sturdy weed a little bit of credit. During the horrible drought of the 1930s Dust Bowl that decimated crop land in the region, the Russian thistle saved the beef industry: when nothing else would grow and regular feed was non-existent, the hardy thistle rapidly colonized the cattle pastures and entire herds of cattle survived on thistle alone.
Image courtesy of Charles Henry.