Tumbleweeds Aren’t What You Think They Are—Here’s the Truth (and Why They’re a Problem)

"Tumbleweeds are a nuisance of an invasive plant species that can contribute to a number of environmental problems."

Tumbleweeds aren’t a common topic of conversation. In truth, the only time tumbleweeds tend to tumble (sorry) through most of our minds is when imagining some Old West aesthetic. Tumbleweeds communicate desolation and vast, open countrysides. Plus, they’re kind of cool, right?

Wrong! Contrary to popular belief, tumbleweeds aren’t an amalgamation of scraps flying around in the desert that have coalesced over time. Instead, a tumbleweed is a singular plant—and it’s an invasive species.

Let’s Talk About Tumbleweeds

tumbleweeds environmental problem

Before they received their infamous nickname, tumbleweeds were originally referred to as Russian thistle. As their name suggests, they are suspected to have been transported from Russia to South Dakota in a flaxseed shipment in the late 1800s. Now, the plant can be found in the majority of the United States.

A newer tumbleweed species, Salsola ryanii, is being referred to as “monster tumbleweed.” While scientists initally thought it would go extinct, it’s only expanding to—and causing issues in—more areas. Because it’s a hybrid of two other types of tumbleweed, it grows more vigorously and can reach up to six feet tall.

Salsola ryanii is a nasty species replacing other nasty species of tumbleweed in the U.S.,” said study co-author Norman Ellstrand, UCR Distinguished Professor of Genetics at the University of California, Riverside, in a press release. “It’s healthier than earlier versions, and now we know why.”

Although this tumbleweed species can grow to a shocking six feet, they tend to max out at three to four on average and have adapted to tolerate the hot and dry desert conditions. Like most plants, tumbleweeds grow from ground-bound roots, but this goes out the window when it comes to its very unique means of seed dispersal.

When a tumbleweed dies, it retains seeds that it is destined to disperse. So the wind snaps the dry plant up by its roots and sends it rolling far and wide, and it drops seeds along the way. This method has been very effective: We now enjoy (or rather, tolerate) a rampant population.

What Problems Do Tumbleweeds Cause?

aerial photography of mountain at daytime

Tumbleweeds cause all sorts of problems for local plants, animals, and people alike. For humans, tumbleweeds can elicit allergic reactions from their pollen, or irritation of the skin through dermatitis.

They can also interfere with agriculture, harming crops by drying out the soil and fostering pests and crop disease. The plant is often so heavy, large, and sharp that it can end up damaging our property—scratching up a car, for example.

But the worst of tumbleweed’s contributions is the exacerbation of wildfires. Tumbleweeds dry up the surrounding environment and, because they are woody and spread rapidly, they are basically kindling. The potential to increase the strength (and so the damage) of a wildfire is why many places have laws against citizens burning the plant.

What Can You Do to Help?

tumbleweeds environmental problem

Scientists are handling the tumbleweed issue on a larger scale, but if you want to do your part, there’s one way to get involved.

While we typically do everything we can to avoid killing plants, tumbleweeds are an exception. While certain herbicides are effective against tumbleweeds, a more sustainable way to minimize tumbleweed damage is by stamping out the species before the seeds are able to spread.

If you live in an environment populated by tumbleweeds, pull them up from the ground, being careful to uproot all of the plant—including the seeds. Just keep in mind that tumbleweeds are very sharp, so protective gloves are a must for such extraction.

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Tumbleweeds are a nuisance of an invasive plant species that can contribute to a number of environmental problems.

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