Bob drifts along with tumblin’ tumble weed

Bob drifts along with tumblin' tumble weed by Bob Karolevitz "How come you've never written a column about tumbleweeds?" Phyllis wanted to know.

"This would be a great year for it, what with spotty drouth conditions in various parts of the Midwest," she said.

"I've got it on my list," was my reply, "but I just never got around to it. Till now, that is!"

In my time I've seen Russian thistles stacked up along fence rows and around abandoned farm machinery. I've watched motorists swerve dangerously, trying to dodge them as they go blowing across the road like bouncing balloons, to make it to the other side or get caught up in front bumpers and axles.

This was in the Dirty Thirties, of course, when farmers fed the prickly plant to gaunt cattle, after first dousing the weed with molasses to make it palatable. They were lucky if they got it harvested before it flowered and the stickers formed.

I hope we never have to go through that in South Dakota again, but today in the arid regions of the Southwest the tumbleweed not only survives but is a continuing pest for farmers and ranchers.

According to the scientists, the plant is neither a thistle nor a cactus but a saltwort (Salsola kali) unknown in the U.S. until the late 1800s. That's when Germans-from-Russia immigrated to this country, carrying seeds of the Tartar thistle � as it was know in the Odessa steppes � mixed in with the flax seeds they brought with them.

There's divided opinion about how the plant was first inadvertently propagated, and not only did it thrive in the Dakotas, but it quickly spread throughout the West.

They say that the Salsola bush can produce as many as 200,000 seeds which germinate in a matter of minutes. And with its brittle root which breaks off with the slightest wind, it didn't take long for it to show up almost everywhere.

Soon it was clogging machinery, infecting the legs of horses with its cruel spines, spreading prairie fires and choking out valuable crops. School children were instructed to "kill it like rattlesnakes." Germans-from-Russia � then called "Roosians" � were castigated for importing a pest worse than the English sparrow.

Because of its origin, it obviously became known as the Russian thistle, whether that designation was correct or not. By the mid-1930s, though, Gene Autry crooned that he was "drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweed" � which was more of an appropriate and descriptive title.

Now researchers in New Mexico are striving to find some good in the ubiquitous plant. They've tried to grow it as a forage crop. After all, it is disease-resistant and tolerant of drouth, salt and harsh sunlight.

They've compressed it into fireplace logs, but unfortunately it didn't smell like wood when it burned. They think massive amounts of tumbleweeds can be liquified and from it could come food supplements, citric acid, vitamins, useful drugs and unrelated things like drilling mud, whatever that is.

Nutritionists have even developed a recipe for tumbleweed soup, but so far it hasn't caught on.

I marvel at what they're trying to do in Arizona and New Mexico, but to me Russian thistles will always bring back memories of dust storms, grasshoppers and the Great Depression.

Maybe that's why I haven't written about them before!

© 2001 Robert F. Karolevitz

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