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What is a Tumbleweed?

Niki Foster
By
Updated Mar 05, 2024
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A tumbleweed is a shrub of the genus Salsola. The plant has between 100 and 130 species native to areas of Europe, Africa, and Asia. Tumbleweeds colonize new areas by breaking from their roots in the fall and scattering seed as they are blown about by the wind.

Salsola tragus and other tumbleweed species were unintentionally brought to America in the 19th century by Ukrainian farmers. The tumbleweed became ubiquitous in the American West and consequently became associated with that area in the public consciousness. In Western songs and later in film, the tumbleweed emerged as a symbol of boredom, desolation, emptiness, and aimless wandering.

Tumbleweed is a very hardy plant, as it is resistant to salt and drought and is able to spread its seed over vast areas. The plant is able to procreate so well through this method that its seeds have not developed the protective coating or food stores seen in most other plants. In addition, the tumbleweed's taproot, which remains behind when the shrub breaks off to tumble through the landscape, is nearly impossible to destroy and grows a new plant every year.

Tumbleweed is considered a pest and an invasive species. It has little if any practical uses. The young shoots can serve as food for horses, sheep, and cattle, but they will only eat it in the absence of anything better.

Though the United States Department of Agriculture deliberately introduced tumbleweed into some areas of the United States around the turn of the 20th century, in the hope that it could feed cattle in times of drought, it now classifies the plant as a noxious weed. Tumbleweed is heavily controlled in the United States with herbicides.

Some tumbleweed species are used as food in certain parts of the world. Salsola soda is eaten raw or boiled in Italy, and Salsola komarovii is harvested for food in Japan, where it is known as "land seaweed." The seeds of the tumbleweed can be used to make flour, but they are quite difficult to collect.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is a tumbleweed?

A tumbleweed is a plant that, upon maturing, detaches from its root and tumbles away with the wind. This remarkable dispersal strategy allows the seeds to spread over a wide area. Tumbleweeds are not a single species; rather, they are a group of plants that share this characteristic, with the Russian thistle being the most well-known example.

Why do tumbleweeds tumble?

Tumbleweeds have evolved to tumble as an effective means of seed dispersal. As the plant dries and breaks from its stem, it is carried by the wind across the landscape. This movement scatters the seeds over a broad area, giving them a better chance to find suitable soil for germination, thus ensuring the species' survival and propagation.

Are tumbleweeds a problem?

While tumbleweeds are iconic symbols of the American West, they can be problematic. They often accumulate against fences, houses, and roads, creating fire hazards and obstructions. In agriculture, they can smother crops and compete for resources. Their invasive nature can also displace native vegetation, impacting local ecosystems.

Where are tumbleweeds commonly found?

Tumbleweeds are commonly found in arid and semi-arid regions, particularly in the western United States. They thrive in disturbed soils, such as those found in agricultural fields, overgrazed lands, and along roadsides. Their prevalence in these areas is due to their ability to withstand drought and poor soil conditions.

Can tumbleweeds cause damage?

Yes, tumbleweeds can cause damage. When they accumulate in large numbers, they can block roads and railways, interfere with vehicles, and even damage homes. Their dry, brittle nature makes them a significant fire risk, especially when they pile up near buildings or in populated areas.

How can the spread of tumbleweeds be controlled?

Controlling the spread of tumbleweeds involves a combination of strategies. Regular removal of plants before they tumble can prevent seed dispersal. Cultivating native vegetation that competes with tumbleweeds can also be effective. In some cases, herbicides may be used, but this requires careful management to avoid harming non-target species and the environment.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Niki Foster
By Niki Foster , Writer

In addition to her role as a AllThingsNature editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

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Niki Foster

Niki Foster

Writer

In addition to her role as a AllThingsNature editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual...

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