those Tumbling Tumbleweeds
no mere noxious weed, prickly Russian thistle
(Salsola tragus) is a threat to gardeners

The Sons of the Pioneers, a 1950s era Country & Western musical group, must never have had to deal with the reality for them to have written their romantic ballad about "Tumbling Tumbleweeds".  It wasn't until May 2008 that Salsola tragus a/k/a prickly Russian thistle a/k/a tumbleweeds started showing up in numbers and size on the land around my Little House in the Desert.  When I first started trying to find out who and what it was, I even referred to the blooms which are hidden away inside the overall structure of the plant as "pretty little blooms", shown in the photo at right, on 080604 in a plant identification discussion group.  A first identification of the plants came from  Wildflowers of Tucson Arizona and another from  Oklahoma Panhandle State University which between them clearly established the unknown plants on my land as Salsola tragus.
      An early commentator said "We get these devils every year, rolling down from the hill above us. They are dreadful!"  That story about them rolling downhill onto one discussion participant's land in the original identifying thread belied their true behavior.  Around my Little House in the Desert, the prevailing winds are such that it tumbles them UPhill, fairly steep hill too, several percent grade, much more frequently than downhill which requires a momentary abnormal wind pattern to achieve.  Another remarked that These were introduced to the US from Russia to help keep our dirt from blowing away ... but the roots are not very deep so when the wind blows (after they are dried out) ... they blow all over the place.  I was driving between my place and town the other day and a rather large "dirt devil" occured right in the middle of the highway ... it had picked up a few "Tumbleweeds" in it's path and were swirling about in front of me ... luckily, they don't do any damage to my car when I drive through them ... but they are really a pain the the rear to see them lined up all around fences out here.
  The closest anyone got to a serious warning about them was the participant who said And there's that whole ... "Back in the USSR" thing going on.  It's Russian Thistle for sure...step on it now!  A good thing to remember for those sensitive to plant exudaes...this one is a nasty, itchy rascal. So do, by all means, step on this bugger and then kick the root crown as it is not very good at coming back from a fight.  In fact, I wasn't about to go at weeding anything that prickly nor cleaning up after its prior year residual detritus without my heavy duty work gloves (made for handling barbed wire, if that gives you some idea of their substance).  But knowing that the Russian thistle has a toxic irritant chemical on its surface was fair warning about part of its problems.  I have more to say about my over confidence in my heavy duty work gloves later in this blog about Salsola tragus.
      The base information that I got about the plants was that they were Salsola tragus (a/k/a Salsola iberica), Common Name:  Prickly Russian Thistle, Tumbleweed.  Plant Type:  Herb, Annual [mine are perennials which regrew
themselves without any help from me; the contradiction probably can be resolved by recognizing their behavior of not regrowing from the same root defining them as Annuals despite the fact that they reseed themselves and thereby show the behavior of existing in the same areas in perpetuity].  Flower Color: Greenish white to pink if stressed.  The greenish white version is shown in the first photo above.  The pink version is shown in the photo at right and the stressor involved was the presence of an ant hill dug directly into the root area of the plant.  Nearly all of the others were the standard pale green flowers shown in the first photo above.
      Height: To 4 feet (122 cm) tall [some residues of prior year growths that I hadn't yet cleared from my newly bought land at the time of my search for identification of the plant suggested that is an accurate measure as did my subsequent experience with the plants].  Notes: The small, petal-less flowers in the upper leaf axils are surrounded by petal-like bracts. The leaves are narrow, alternate, and become stiff and spine-tipped in mature plants. The stems are often reddish. This
introduced weed grows into large, round bushes that will dry and then and tumble in the wind. [which is what the respondent who mentioned them tumbling downhill was talking about, contradicting my previous impression that the wind tumblers seen various places around the Great American Desert were "Sagebrush"].
      The match between the photos at the referenced URLs and my photos was too exact for there to be any doubt as to the accuracy of the identification.  I noted that I clearly had some weed pulling to do in areas where I especially don't want any four foot tall versions of this guy.  But nobody in the discussion mentioned what was really hostile about Salsola tragus, only some aesthetic considerations.  So I mistakenly concluded Some other areas I'm likely to let grow to full size because medium size shrub like growths such as these would look okay there, even if I have to clean up after them when they dry out at the end of the season.  The photos below show what I thought I was dealing with as a prospective cleanup:
It isn't as if there weren't some additional warning comments about the plants.  One said Good luck. That 250,000 seeds per plant convinced me not to let them hang around for long. Trouble is, they don't grow on our property, they 'levitate' here!  Having numerous acceptable ground cover shrubs in lieu of barren ground would not have been a negative, in my original view.  Another commenter said Yeah, I never took that close a look at them...had no idea they even flowered, I just chop'em off RIGHT away! which is rather vague and provides nothing in the way of the reasons WHY anyone would want to chop them out right away.  Additional comments were similarly explicit, e.g. if you let it go every year you'll find more and more of them  and  hopefully you won't regret later  that you left them alone when you had the chance to remove them! but lacking in any of the reasoning behind the conclusions.  None of those warnings got to the real reasons Salsola tragus is objectionable.
      Some of the semantic discussions were downright counterproductive.  They emphasized the words "invasive", "native" (as distinct from imported), and concerned themselves with how the plants or their seeds had gotten into my land as if any of those things were determinants of value and usefulness of plant life.  Since I didn't bring them here myself and have no control over wind nor weather, the discussions of "how they got here" were particularly futeless and irrelevant both to the question of whether they require control efforts and to how they behave while they're here.  Two of the prettiest plants on my still mostly barren ground are Erodium cicutarium and Lomatium californicum, both of which are weeds which seed themselves wherever they please and, in that sense are *invasive* (even if one of them was said to be "not invasive" in the semanticists' perversion of logic which declares that all natives are necessarily good and therefore not invasive even when they show up where they're not wanted and are malicious, abusive, and destructive trespassers on privately owned land).  Erodium cicutarium is ubiquitous throughout the High Desert so a semanticist's pretense that it is "non-native" holds no logical relevance.  Lomatium californicum hasn't yet even been recognized by the authorities as being *present* in the large county where my Little House is located (I suspect because none of those experts ever looked out here in the Mojave Desert and concerned themselves solely with the coastal areas where they themselves are located) so focusing on the "native" nature of L.californicum is an especially tedious bit of tonsorial artistry.  The possibility of getting around the semantic nonsenses and to the point of this blog is the key reason I include photos.
      In any event, I made the decision to weed out the individual Salsola tragus which were growing in areas where a four foot tall version of the plant would not be aesthetically acceptable to me.  I chose to leave a stand of them and a few outriders to grow to full size in an area where I thought that a four foot tall green shrub would provide a suitably green ground cover, at least until the plants dried out, that otherwise would be barren ground.  Salsola tragus hides its little flowers so well within the thistles that it never had the redeeming feature of pretty flowers that other weeds do.  Mostly what one sees is a medium green shrub growing up to four feet tall (which was nowhere near that tall yet even in the areas where I decided to leave some to grow).  The threatened "250,000 seeds per plant" hadn't translated into all that severe of a weeding problem, not even for the areas where I definitely didn't want any four foot tall prickly Russian thistle.  I suspected from the outset that the thistle wouldn't even make a tolerable composting material (if I ever got around to that) because enough of the seeds would inevitably survive to create not nourishment but unacceptable new weed growth in areas where I might then apply the compost. So gathering up the detritus when the accepted growth of thistle was done being pretty and green and dumpstering that detritus was my original plan.
      As with E.cicutarium and L.californicum, all such decisions of mine are provisional and depend on how things go with the actual plants in the future.  I'm simply happy that I allowed those pretty purple flowered cicutariums and the tiny yellow flowered californicums to do their thing in 2008 and was at least "hopeful" that my decision with S.tragus wouldn't turn out too badly.  I was in fact even interested in acquiring some Oenothera speciosa which is a *known* highly invasive plant. Yet I think it's so pretty that I intended to acquire at least some initial samples of it to sow themselves around my place.  Another day, another weed encouraged to do its thing :).  But even at the outset I was selective about it. There was one of my volunteers early in 2008 that I disliked so much that I exterminated virtually every one of its numbers (and have been doing so again in 2009 for those that I missed last year).  So this wasn't a laissez faire kind of decision process but more of a "if it's pretty enough and *fits* within my overall garden plan, I'm going to allow it to grow" at least until I allocate the land involved to other purposes.
      The ballad sung by the Sons of The Pioneers was so romantic in the stanza Cares of the past are behind/ no where to go but I'll find/ just where the trail will wind/ drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds.  Comes the end
of the growing season and Salsola tragus became a "care of the present".  Varying sizes of full grown tumbleweeds began disconnecting themselves from the ground in which they grew.  Prevailing winds tumbled them mostly uphill to lodge against my chain link fence where they left branches of thorns even after I removed the bulk of each tumbling tumbleweed into my dumpster.  That promptly became a space problem since only one of the trash barrels is available for waste products (the other is exclusively for recyclables), the trash barrel(s) are picked up only once per week, and the nature of tumbleweeds is to occupy a very large amount of physical space for each plant.  Recall that the original plants were as much as four feet tall and that or somewhat more in diameter.  They don't get any smaller when they're tumbling.
      At first I tried scrunching them down into the barrel with my gloved hands.  That created several immediate additional problems along with disposal of the tumblers.  The dried out Salsola tragus plants have fully developed THORNS, lots of them along each of the multitude of branches.  Referring to the Russian thistle as merely "prickly" is a misnomer.  Only the young underdeveloped new growths of the plant are merely "prickly".  Those thorns on the dried out fully grown plants individually are capable of piercing the leather gloves that I have available so that even weeks after completion of the cleanup process I am still finding thorns on the inside of the fingers of the gloves.  Of course my hands were also being bitten by the thorns while I was trying to scrunch the dried out plants. Then too, the thorny branches didn't scrunch particularly well.  They tended to whip around the outside of my gloved hand and plant numerous of their thorns up over the tops and into the gloves.  Walking in the areas where they had been growing or to which they had tumbled meant picking up numerous of those thorns which lodged themselves into the soles of my shoes.  Even my bristly WELCOME mat when I went inside was not capable of removing the majority of those thorns from the bottoms of my shoes.  The thorns then came loose on my indoor carpeting and notified me of their presence by biting my feet when I walked around the house barefoot.
      My second attempt at scrunching the tumblers and later the plants that remained rooted in their original locations was with a hand pushable lawn roller on the concrete surface of the patio at the back of my Little House in the Desert.  When filled with water, the lawn roller weighs 250 pounds and did a much more effective job of scrunching the dried out Salsola tragus, albeit with some difficulties getting it to roll up on top of the resistant thorny plants.  That tended to reduce the volume of detritus to dispose of in the trash barrel somewhat better than hand scrunching but, even so, there were a large number of such roughly (4x4x4=) 64 cubic feet per plant original size tumblers and still rooted plants to dispose of.  It took many weeks of gathering the tumblers and later the still rooted plants even to get to the point of addressing the original major stand of Salsola tragus that I had allowed to grow to full size.
    Towards the end of the effort to dispose of the thorny Russian thistles, my best solution to scrunching the Salsola tragus was with an eight inch square metal "tamper" at the end of a five foot long handle.  Add some whole plants into the trash barrel, crush the plants with the tamper, add some more whole plants, crush again with the tamper, until the barrel was full for that week's trash pickup.  That was the procedure by which the disposal effort eventually got completed.  Incidentally, that tamper is also quite useful for compacting the sandy clayey rocky gravelly ground on my land when I have other things I want to get done, such as laying the brick for my building materials patio or firming up the banks of the channels that I dug in some places to control the flow of water when it rains out here in the desert.
      Bottom line on my first year experience with Salsola tragus was that it is a seriously objectionable plant form which can't reasonably be allowed to grow in an inhabited area.  That's "sort of" what some of the respondents to my original effort at identitying the plant had said but now with detailed explanation of WHY the plant is objectionable and needs to be weeded out at first appearance.  My tolerance for allowing any of them to grow as a green shrub accent on any part of my land was just plain wrong.
      Recall though that I hadn't even noticed them until some of their numbers were already getting to be a foot or more tall during May 2008.  How was I to go about catching them early enough in their growth process to avoid the horrors of the cleanup process that I went through in 2008?  This year, I had a group of suspicious seedlings such as the one shown in the photo at right growing all over the place.  These seedlings were growing perhaps especially in areas where the tumbleweeds gathered against my fencing last year. What I suspected was that these "might be" Salsola tragus but I never caught them early enough last year to know for sure.  In an effort to get some conclusive information, I went searching on Google for Salsola tragus to see if they might be able to refer me to any baby pictures, i.e. what the plant looks like when it first comes up out of the ground.  They referred me to the  Calflora web site where I originally had been able to accurately identify Lomatium californicum. Clicking on the one photo offered on that page, I found myself again on the Calphotos.berkeley.edu site where the vast majority of their photos are of the noxious adult plants, of which I already have three photos shown earlier in this blog. They did have one photo, however, not reviewed as being authentic, which showed something that looked an awful lot like the babies in question on my land. Going in by that route it was the photo in the fifth row column three to which I am able in this blog to refer as  the one baby photo which looks to me to be virtually identical to my photo of what in fact I have on my land.   I also went back to the original June 2008 inquiry which identified the adult Salsola tragus for me and reviewed the external sources that were provided. The source at  Oklahoma Panhandle State University had a baby picture of a group of Salsola tragus at the very top of the page.  If the babies I've been suspicious of aren't the identical same plant they look so much like it that they might as well be.
      The Sons of the Pioneers may have phrased this new growth process as I know when night has gone/ that a new world's born at dawn/ I'll keep rolling along/ deep in my heart is a song/ here on the banks I belong/ drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds but I have a very much less sanguine view of them thar tumbling tumbleweeds after being bitten and chewed by their thorny reality.  The photos below are of larger clumps of the seedlings:
Cute little things so long as you don't know what they are nor how they behave after they grow to full adult size.  I went out onto my acre of land that very afternoon and pulled the first several hundred of them. Got half a small wheelbarrow full pulled during that first weeding effort. Was very careful to pull as few as possible of my pretty Erodium cicutarium and Lomatium californicum plants while I was at it. They may *all* be classified the same way, as invasive weeds, but E.cicutarium and L.californicum have redeeming prettiness value during their lifespans with none of the "capable of biting a gardener through leather gloves" feature of Salsola tragus which I went through as I was cleaning them up one trash barrel full per week for what seemed like forever.  The modern day prevalence of Salsola tragus is so widespread it "might as well have been native" even though somebody kept records of having imported it from Russia to bite gardeners even through leather gloves, to obstruct traffic on the highways that it clutters, and other noxious purposes.  Referring to Salsola tragus as merely "noxious" is a severe understatement.  The prickly Russian thistle is an unholy terror as soon as it starts drying out and isn't all that pretty even in its prime, merely a green shrublike growth on otherwise barren ground. I made a serious mistake last year in allowing Salsola tragus to grow at all, after finding out what it was. It was a mistake which I am taking decisive steps NOT to repeat this year.  Ye gads what a horror!