Love them or hate them, tumbleweeds are ready to roll their way into spring

This tumbleweed being blown across Pitkin Avenue is one of many rolling across western Colorado right now spreading their seeds.

Spring just wouldn't be here without the arrival of these plants.

Actually, they've been lying in wait all year. They grew all summer, stood stoically through the fall rains and winter snows, despite their brittle state. Now they have broken free from their surly bonds to roam freely across pastures, along roadways and right in front of your car when you're trying to drive.

Some seem to travel in herds, rolling across the desert. Others shall not pass any farther, caught in droves by tall fences and mired by other obstacles.

Behold, the mighty tumbleweed.

Along with barbed wire, spurs and cowboy hats, tumbleweeds are a symbol of the West. Free and unfettered, they go where the winds desire, spreading seeds that will exponentially grow into more of their kind the following year.

Tumbleweeds are almost their own characters in Western movies, setting the stage for a steely-eyed duel or a shootout. They are both loved in popular culture and hated by those who live in their environment.

Tumbleweeds come from two non-native plants in western Colorado: the Russian thistle and kochia. These weeds been around since settlers arrived, and as pioneers moved west, they introduced the alien plants.

Kochia originated overseas, and is native to Asia and was introduced by way of Europe.

Russian thistle and kochia enjoyed their new habitat a little too much, taking over some areas that formerly thrived with native plants. They were able to propagate faster and better. They also have a knack for growing in dry conditions, making them near-impervious to drought.

In 1894, a botanist named Lyster H. Dewey, who worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, wrote "The Russian Thistle: Its History as a Weed in the United States with an Account of the Means Available for its Eradication."

Dewey wrote that Russian thistle had appeared recently in wheat-growing regions, and had already caused millions of dollars of damages, including problems with harvesting machinery, plowing and had caused festering sores on horses' legs as well as provided fuel for wildfires.

He warned that the tumbleweed was spreading rapidly and "it threatens serious consequences unless prompt measures are taken to subdue it."

He documented a specimen submitted in 1880 in South Dakota (then considered the "northwest" of the country) and noted it thrived in dry conditions and farmers were alarmed at how fast it spread.

It had become prolific across 35,000 square miles in about 20 years. This was after it was originally introduced, according to Dewey, through contaminated grains and seeds, including flaxseed, oats, barley and wheat.

By the time Dewey wrote the bulletin, isolated incidents of Russian thistle growing in far-flung places such as Denver were documented, and experts speculated the weed had been transported with the expansion of the railroad.

That's not surprising when you consider Dewey also said an average-sized plant, around three feet wide, was estimated to produce 20,000 to 30,000 seeds that were not all released simultaneously.

Through an ingenious mechanism, the plant's seeds are held in place by twisted hairs, so they don't all shake loose at once. The shallow roots hold the plant in place long enough for it to fully mature, then the whole plant dries up and the stem breaks, allowing the Russian thistle to spread its seeds far and wide as it rolls about all winter and into the spring.

Dewey discussed the difficulty of eradicating the weed at the time, and said the key was in stopping the production of seeds, as the Russian thistle's life cycle lasts one year. Without a concerted, sustained effort, he warned the weed would take over.

"The farmer who has not attempted to drive the weed from his farm has sustained immense damage to his crops, and in some cases has been driven from the farm himself," he wrote.

At the time, the Russian thistle was considered a noxious weed by some officials. In fact, those who supervised highways or railroads in North Dakota could be fined $50 for failing to control the weeds, a hefty fine at the time, according to a law that went into effect in 1891. But control methods were expensive, time-consuming, and not orchestrated in an effective manner, so the tumbleweed prevailed.

Today, Russian thistle and kochia are so widespread most states don't legally consider them noxious. They're really just a nuisance. That means they're not targeted for eradication, as they've become a predictable part of the landscape.

Each spring, the seeds germinate. During especially warm spring weather, they can pop out of the soil as early as March. In heavily seeded areas, they often appear clustered as a thick green carpet over soil.

Identification of these weeds is pretty simple. While Russian thistle has a reddish or purple stem and can be quite prickly, kochia has a somewhat grayish-green hue and the leaves are a little bit fuzzy or hairy. Both weeds grow rapidly and can reach shoulder-height by fall.

Removal of these plants is fairly easy, especially when the plants are young. When they're tiny, they can be treated with horticultural vinegar or herbicides or hoed by hand. They have shallow roots that don't put up much defense against hand-pulling when they're a bit bigger.

Larger, mature weeds can grow to the size of small Christmas trees and present a much bigger challenge to remove.

Despite being a nuisance, some folks treasure tumbleweeds and have turned them into a business venture to capitalize on the nostalgic symbol romanticized in Western songs. While drivers in western Colorado are busy dodging them on highways, one can easily find tumbleweeds for sale online.

A Utah store called Curious Country Creations sells them — customers can buy baby tumbleweeds for $14.99, plus shipping. The large tumbleweeds listed on Curious Country Creations' website have 55 customer reviews, including one from a satisfied Florida event planner who ordered one for a western-themed conference and wrote, "We had never seen a real tumbleweed before and were very grateful for the information provided about their sharp thorns and shapes."

Another Florida customer wrote she had purchased a baby tumbleweed to hang from her ceiling as home décor.

Other reviews indicate people purchase tumbleweeds for weddings, Sunday school classes, theater props and conversation pieces. The company also wrote on its Facebook page in 2013 about a sale that required overnight shipping of a tumbleweed to the Indianapolis 500.

Tumbleweeds have demonstrated that after more than 120 years, they intend to stay, and some people are making the most of that. Like the hardy folk who first headed into the unknown parts of this country, Russian thistle and kochia set down roots and adapted quickly to the environment, crowding out others.

These invaders aren't going anywhere, and remind us with every spring wind gust that they're still tumblin' along.

Erin McIntyre is an advanced master gardener and journalist. Email her at Erin.McIntyre@gjsentinel.com with story ideas or feedback.

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