Tumbleweed (Russian thistle)Tumbleweed

Although the tumbleweed is not primarily a desert plant as are our cacti, it does thrive in southeast Arizona--especially along the sides of the road where the soil has been disturbed by graders, etc. It starts out as a pretty blue-green seedling and grows into a prickly, wiry weed. Although its spines don't actually lodge in the skin, it does have a high itch factor for many people, especially after it has become dry and brittle. But there's no accounting for tastes, and there actually is a place in Kansas that sells the giant plants and mails them out to you. Three sizes, small, medium, and large go for between $15 and $25 at Prairie Tumbleweed Farm. On their web site they show some samples of tumbleweed decor.

Tumbleweeds are not native to the western hemisphere. They were introduced from Russia's Ukraine when some farmers inadvertently brought them to South Dakota in 1886 along with seeds for flax. Since then they have spread across the west, even earning a place in a song, but they are generally not popular with farmers and gardeners. However, anyone who is fond of birds, small mammals, and deer owes a debt of gratitude to the tumbleweed, which provides sustenance for many such animals. Among the desert dwellers who eat tumbleweed seeds, foliage, and stems are Gambel's quail, ground squirrels, pocket and white-footed mice, prairie dogs, kangaroo rats, and mule deer.

In spite of its role in the wildlife diet, it is nevertheless considered an invasive plant. There is a wealth of information on tumbleweeds including photos of them and many other interesting plants at www.invasive.org There I learned that the species I am familiar with here in southeast Arizona is actually prickly russian thistle (Salsola tragus ) as opposed to simple russian thistle (Salsola kali) or shrubby russian thistle (Salsola vermiculata)! The invasive.org site offers a huge amount of information about 327 species of invasive and exotic weeds with many photos and other scientific information. Other sections of the site are devoted to invasive insects and plant diseases. Invasive.org is a joint project of The Bugwood Network, USDA Forest Service and USDA APHIS PPQ., The University of Georgia - Warnell School of Forest Resources and the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences - Dept. of Entomology.