What Kind of Plant is a Tumbleweed?

Excerpt from Valley 101: A Slightly Skewed Guide to Living in Arizona, a collection of Clay Thompson’s columns for The Arizona Republic. (Originally published January 15, 2002.)

Q: Are tumbleweeds a specific plant or is that a generic term for any dead plant that is blown around by the wind?

A: New to these parts, stranger? Actually, so are tumbleweeds, relatively speaking.

Tumbleweeds really are a specific plant, the mature form of the Russian thistle, Salsola iberica.We think of them as being a real symbol of the West: wide-open spaces and the Sons of the Pioneers and all that. The fact of the matter is tumbleweeds are immigrants from the steppes of Asia. I didn’t know that before, even though during my Wonder Bread years I spent many extremely boring hours digging them out of the ancestral estate.

The first seeds arrived in the Dakotas sometime in the 1870s in shipments of wheat or flaxseed from Russia. They were on the West Coast by 1900. They are considered to be peregrinating plants—highly traveled.

Russian thistles now are found in about 19 countries outside Asia. They do not compete well with native plants in undisturbed areas, but give them a farm field or ditch and they’ll move right in.

They also do well in salty soil. The name Salsola comes from the Latin word for salt. They can grow to be as big as small cars. In the late 1930s, tumbleweeds completely engulfed the small town of Lester in western Maricopa County. Several chickens were smothered, and the townsite had to be abandoned.

I made that up.

The whole tumbling business is, of course, how the plant disperses its seeds. When the thistle is mature, it dries up, snaps off from its roots with the help of special cells in its stem and waits for the wind to give it a ride. They can produce up to 100,000 seeds that go flying off as the plant tumbles along.

As far as I know, tumbleweeds are not really good for anything except the annual tumbleweed Christmas tree in Chandler, a pleasantly goofy tradition since 1957.


  1. j j says

    I was scared for my chicken’s lives reading about that poo,r poor town of Lester…LOL! Had me going there for a minute. I live on a desolate piece of sand in southern utah that I lovingly call the tumbleweed ranch. these was stuff i didn’t know. thank you for an informative and entertaining ; ) article.

  2. Scott Buscemi says

    I’ve hit one on the I10 – those suckers aren’t friendly on the road! Interesting to know that they aren’t native.

  3. says

    To our great surprise, we discovered that beautiful jewelry can be made from “tumbleweed”! There are 2 different types which grow around our little area of AZ and we use them both in art (as well as many other unusual materials from the desert).

    Google “Lord & YoungMiller” to see some of the art – and please leave us a note if you do!

  4. SaraD says

    As my mom’s allergist pointed out to her, years ago, Russian Thistle is a member of the Goosefoot family, and many people have a strong summer allergy to it. An allergist can test for it and recommend medication or injections that will give you some relief from it.

    There is nothing more irritating than being aboard an otherwise perfectly good horse that will watch a tumbleweed come bouncing along toward it, interested but not alarmed, then suddenly, at the very last moment, realize that the thing is (apparently) the BOOGEYMAN, and go 7 different directions at once. Chances of you going one of those 7 directions, too, are not good.

  5. says

    “As far as I know, tumbleweeds are not really good for anything”
    Oh what a shame…

    Tumblestones are made from tumbleweeds. a fifty step process is used to produce these delicate and astonishingly beautiful gemstones. Tumbleweeds are gathered, cleaned, prepared, treated and “fossilized” under titanic heat and pressure.

    “Tumbleweeds are such an iconic southwest image, there must be a way to capture all of that… the sunsets and fence lines, the hard traveled miles of dust and grass, the lean body of the earth caressed by the sky…”

    Check out beautiful tumbleweed jewelry at tumbleweedgems.com

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