Sunday, June 15, 2014

DRIFTING ALONG...By Vonn McKee

Brian Goodman photo
What would a wild west movie be without ‘em? Or even The Big Lebowski? They add just the right touch of desert desolation to a sound stage ghost town. Iconic lonely wanderers skittering across the screen…such a perfect metaphor for the drifting cowboy, ever restless and never tarrying long.

They’ve been immortalized in song. “See them tumbling down, pledging their love to the ground…” A strange lyrical image, if you ask me but, hey…whatever rhymes, right?

We know and love them (or not) as tumbleweeds. The botanical name is Salsola Tragus, or Russian thistle. Many a disgruntled farmer would smugly opine no surprise that the Russians might be behind this nefarious fence-clogging, crop-invading weed.

Disgruntled farmer
As you might guess from the name, Russian thistle is, indeed, not from around here. It sneaked over in bags of flax seed brought to South Dakota by immigrants in the early 1870’s. There was a conspiracy among the local farmers that the Russian immigrants, many of whom were Mennonites, had the noxious plant shipped over to protest frontier prejudices against them. The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture conducted an investigation and everything. Eventually, it was ruled a horrible accident rather than an act of botanical warfare.

Conditions in the arid and open plains proved to be perfectly conducive to total tumbleweed domination. As the plant matures, it breaks off at the main stem and hitches a ride on the wind, dropping as many as a quarter million seeds on its journey. (Yes, that’s from ONE tumbleweed.) The seeds are not picky about things like soil pH, minimum rainfall or hardiness zones so it isn’t long before the seedling goes from this innocent little tyke:


to this unassuming shrub:


to this!

National Geographic photo

Here is a map of Russian thistle distribution in the United States. It does not reflect the degree of invasion, only the presence of Russian thistle variants. While the wild weeds still prefer the Wild West, as you can see, about the only places you won’t find some version of these ornery thistles (they love to merge with other subspecies) are in the Everglades and the Great Lakes.


Tumblin’ tumbleweeds can easily take paint off a car, thanks to their spiny branches, and can self-stick into huge piles, creating fire hazards and navigational bothers. In January of this year, the citizens of Clovis, New Mexico, awoke to find themselves buried in tumbleweed drifts. It took the city weeks to dig out of the mess.

CNN image

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has tried many Russian thistle “management” measures to no avail. The current research is centered around various weevils, caterpillars and tiny insects called “blister mites,” which feed specifially on the thistle. (Just a little word to the D of A here: Y’all might want to be careful about introducing something called BLISTER MITES into an already bad situation.)

herbguide.com image


Since you are all probably humming "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" by now, here are some interesting links. For the purists, The Sons of the Pioneers with classic western harmony:

The Sons of the Pioneers (Young Leonard Slye in front)
Bob Nolan photo collection
CLICK HERE: Sons of the Pioneers

As a wild card bonus, here are the Supremes with their Motown version. (What? You don't own The Supremes Sing Country, Western and Pop?)

Joel Francis image
CLICK HERE: Supremes



Until next time, lonely but free I’ll be found, drifting along with the Salsola Tragus



                  All the best, VM








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21 comments:

  1. That was really informative. I noted the date with particular interest because, as you say, they are a staple of the western and I thought they'd always been there. Thanks for the insight.

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    1. I spent the afternoon at an air show and I'm just getting around to reading all your responses. Yes, I was also surprised that there weren't ALWAYS tumbleweeds.

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  2. Very interesting, Vonn! I did NOT know the Supremes had a version of this song. How did I miss that? LOL Like Joanne, I assumed they had always just been a part of the western landscape.
    Cheryl

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    1. "A version of this song" is correct. It's a radically different arrangement!

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  3. Vonn,
    Fascinating. I wrote a short story with a tumbleweed as the main character. It worked well for the concept, but living in the West as I do, these 'creatures' are a menace. I also agree, beware the cure may be worse than the infestationl.

    Thank you for the links also. Love the music. Doris

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    1. Pretty cool concept for a story, Doris. Was the tumbleweed a bad guy or a good one?

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  4. Most interesting. I was reluctant to mention tumbleweeds in The Hardest Ride as them being too clicheish, but also because I don't see that many in south Texas and north Mexico, even though it was the right time of year for the.
    I didn't know they were introduced in the early 1870s in ND. Since most Westerns take place in the 1870s and 18880s, just how far would it have spread in say 10 years? Maybe they shouldn't be in every Western.

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    1. I've had the same thought about mentioning tumbleweeds. Most sources I checked said that they arrived in the early 1870's. One said, specifically, 1873. Guess there wasn't much to stop them from blowing all over the plains. They grow quickly and, with 200,000+ seeds per plant, it obviously didn't take long for them to spread.

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  5. Well done!

    On the ranch, I try to poison the ones on the private road, and it takes real toxic stuff. After a few years, the darn things come back! They grow everywhere, even in thick gravel.

    Charlie

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    1. Now that I know what a living Russian thistle looks like, I know I've seen them in parts of the Deep South. However, they don't seem to travel about there as they do in the wide open West. Surely there's something useful we could be doing with them!

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  6. When I took my parents and kid brother on their first trip west, my brother bagged a tumbleweed. He kept that sucker in a plastic bag for years, until it finally disintegrated. I was also amazed at how many near accidents I've seen over the years by people slamming on their brakes or swerving to avoid a tumbleweed blowing across the highway. Just hit the doggone thing. It'll bust up. Better a few scratches on your bumper than a totaled car or truck and a hospital stay.. or worse.

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    1. Just think how many potential tumbleweeds your brother kept from sprouting! I can see how a driver who was not from around there might freak out at the sight. Could be mistaken for a rolling boulder? :D

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  7. Just tried to listen to the Supremes version. Couldn't do it. Too painful.

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    1. Jim, I can't listen to it without cracking up. Just ain't right, is it?

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  8. That's an interesting backstory on tumbleweeds. I had no idea they were transplants.
    I was riding my motorcycle across the Texas Panhandle a few weeks ago on my way back to Alaska. I'd had lunch with Cheryl P and her husband a little earlier and passed a sign that warned to look out for wild hogs. The wind was shoving the bike around and I was working through a new plot inside my helmet when a tumbleweed came out of nowhere and slammed into my handlebars. I saw the cussed thing an instant before it hit, and, in that split second before impact, imagined a flying wild hog had launched itself at me from the ditch. Glad it was only a lowly Russian Thistle….

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  9. Wow! That could have been disastrous. Glad you are okay. Whenever I visit my parents, who live near the Louisiana/Texas line, I'm always terrified of running into a wild hog. They're becoming really plentiful. So much for carefree walks in the woods.

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  10. My old great-uncles had a couple of days always marked off on the summer calendar called "Thistle Day" -- and they'd spend the day walking the farm, digging 'em out by the root.

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    1. Followed by a big bonfire, I'll bet!

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  11. Russian thistles--aargh! Like Richard's family, we had an annual Murder Thistles Day. No, we didn't look forward to it. They had their uses, though. Some used thistles to make fences. Keeps small critters in and larger critters out. They're no fun to repair, though.

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    1. That's even more creative than lemonade from lemons, Jacquie. Can you believe that you can actually BUY tumbleweeds online these days?

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