Pen in Hand: Drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds | Lifestyle

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“I’ll keep rolling along

Deep in my heart is a song

Here on the range I belong

Drifting along with the tumblin’ tumbleweeds. . .”

Along with windmills, horses, old barns, sunsets and barbed wire, tumbleweeds are an enduring symbol of the Old West. They could also represent the New West, since they are still thriving today, including in the Tehachapi Mountains.

Relatively speaking, however, tumbleweeds have not actually been part of the landscape of the American West for very long — they came west with the settlers. About 150 years ago, the West was without a single tumbleweed.

Named for its ability to roll effortlessly ahead of the wind, the tumbleweed is an annual plant. After growing all summer to a size that may exceed six feet in diameter, the tumbleweed dies. The plant’s prickly stems harden and form a lightweight circular framework. This dried foliage then breaks free of its roots and is blown along, a vegetable skeleton adrift on the wind.

Known botanically as Kali tragus, the tumbleweed has acquired other nicknames: Russian thistle, Nevada barbed wire, roly-poly, sticker bush and Russian cactus. Regardless of what name is used, the plant has generated little affection from Westerners.

Researchers have traced the origins of tumbleweeds in the U.S. to accidental importation, mixed in with flax seed brought by immigrants who settled in Bonhomme County, South Dakota in 1873. Additional introductions came when tumbleweed seeds were mixed in with Russian wheat that was planted in the Midwest.

From the first year of introduction, tumbleweeds began to colonize the arid West. The plant had evolved to survive the harsh growing conditions of Afghanistan, Siberia, Russia and Ukraine. America proved an easy mark for the persistent tumbleweed, and it wasn’t long before Russian thistle had reached every western state.

The tumbleweed is a marvel of efficiency in the plant world. All plants have some method of seed dispersal, so the offspring won’t compete with the parent plant, but tumbleweeds excel at it. The geometrical round or oval design of its interlaced stems allow it to roll along while dropping up to 200,000 seeds that can germinate in as little as 36 minutes. Small wonder that it has been referred to as “The Weed That Won the West.”

Like a dishonest gambler, the tumbleweed has made enemies wherever it’s gone. Ranchers don’t like tumbleweeds, because most livestock won’t eat them once they grow past their seedling stage, and they block access to grass and better forage beneath them. Once they break free and starting rolling, tumbleweeds can also build up by the hundreds along miles of fencelines.

Farmers dislike tumbleweeds because they get tangled up in seeding and harvesting equipment, and they do not disk under easily. They also spread wildfires by rolling across firebreaks, carrying flame with them.

Homeowners can also have trouble with tumbleweeds, which blow in from nearby fallow fields. On Jan. 5, Mick, Debbie and Rachel Simpson of Tehachapi awoke to find the front of their house near City Park covered with tumbleweeds that had blown in from high winds the night before.

The Simpsons raked them into the street, as well as tumbleweeds from neighboring homes, and a hard-working city of Tehachapi maintenance crew hauled them away.

Tumbleweeds can also be a fire hazard, since they burn with an intensity that rivals gasoline. The dried stems are evenly small and spaced perfectly to spread flames to each other, while still allowing in ample oxygen to fuel the blaze.

My friend’s grandmother found use for one tumbleweed each year, however: she’d spray it with the white paint used for flocking Christmas trees and decorate it with ornaments. It didn’t have quite the effect of a noble fir, but it was appropriate for the desert region where she lived.

Whatever animosity one may bear for tumbleweeds, it is hard not to admire them for their toughness and tenacity. They have the ability to grow in disturbed soil with practically no water, and almost no insects or animals will eat a mature plant.

We also have no one but ourselves to blame for their introduction to this country. The arrival of tumbleweeds is a great example of the law of unintended consequences — frequently mentioned but rarely defined — which states that actions of people always have effects that are unanticipated or unintended. Like when homesteaders in the 1870s and 1880s planted wheat or flax, and got tumbleweeds too. . . .

Have a good week.

Jon Hammond has written for Tehachapi News for more than 40 years. Send email to

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