Thursday, October 08, 2009

Tumbling Tumbleweeds

Story and photos by Ginny Glasscock, Silver Creek Preserve assistant manager

Drifting along…

Wide open spaces, a coyote howling against a full moon, tumbleweeds rolling across the prairie ….. except this last Western icon is not part of the natural landscape!

A tumbleweed may be one of several plant species, mostly introduced as hitchhikers in grain cargo shipments from Russia and Europe as early as the late 1800s.

They become a true tumbleweed when the stem of the dry, mature plant breaks off in the wind, leaving the whole above-ground section free to whirl away and spread seeds as it travels.

At The Nature Conservancy’s Silver Creek Preserve, the predominant type is the “tumbling mustard.”

It is less dense and thorny than the Russian thistle tumbleweed. These lightweight clusters bounce and skip along roads and fields in a stiff breeze.
They often end up in Silver Creek, rolling along on top of the water’s surface if the wind is strong enough.

While some people think of tumbleweeds as innocuous, or even romantic, many consider them an unsightly nuisance.

They pile up against any leeward obstruction, including road bank , gates, and fences. Their efficient seed dispersal method allows invasive weeds to displace native vegetation. And their tinder-dry branches are a fire hazard in the arid Idaho desert.

Balls of tumbleweeds are removed from the deck and perimeter of the Silver Creek Visitor Center after windstorms for this very reason.

But for all their drawbacks, tumbleweeds continue to inspire the imagination. We all know the famous cowboy song, penned by Bob Nolan of the Sons of the Pioneers in 1932.

Besides being recorded by many famous country and western singers, this song has also been covered by more unlikely artists, such as Pat Boone Elvis Presley, Clint Eastwood, and the Supremes.

The name “tumbleweed” has been appropriated for commercial use, including two movies (1925 and 1999), restaurants, clothing, a line of cowboy gear, a children’s gymnastics chain, a singing group, a comic strip, and dancehalls in Texas and Oklahoma.

An Arizona town decorates a tumbleweed each December for its Christmas tree. You can contact companies in Utah, Texas, Arizona, and Kansas to actually purchase a real tumbleweed and have it shipped to you.

Prairie Tumbleweed Farms markets logo T-shirts. Curious Country Creations is having a sale on their Giant Western Tumbleweed, marked down to $28.99 from $40.

Or better yet, from now until winter, you can admire the Silver Creek tumbleweeds for free !


Robert M said...

Part of our conservation efforts in the foothills north of Boise is to fight off the invasive weeds species like poison hemlock, skeleton weed, and even the romanticized tumble weeds. What a battle!

J Miller said...

I get so frustrated by these in my yard and garden. What to do with them? Maybe I need to reflect more on the romance of them. Hah!