Just what is a tumbleweed? Those twisted balls of dead foliage rolling across deserts and the open range.

They are invasive weeds called Russian thistle.

In 1873, Russian immigrants, we believe they were from Ukraine, arrived in South Dakota carrying flax seed that was contaminated with Russian thistle seeds.

There was no disease to stop the thistle plants from spreading.

Every winter after Russian thistle plants die, the brittle bushy parts snap off at the roots and blow away, dispersing seeds wherever they tumble, a quarter million a plant.

They live on very little water and by the end of the 1800s, the weeds had rolled their way across most of the western states and into Canada. The wind and even railroad cars carried them.
Tumbleweeds have never stopped spreading.

Nearly every state is now home to Russian thistle including Ohio and Pennsylvania, but out west, they’re a real problem. They often bury houses, block roads and driveways, and even trap people inside their homes.

One New Year’s Eve, state troopers in Washington state spent 10 hours digging motorists out of tumbleweeds that were piled 30 feet high on the roadway.

They called the mess “tumblegeddon.”

How do we deal with them? Pesticides, maybe insects or a fungus might help, providing they stick to Russian thistle.

Two Westerns were named for these shrubby lone drifters, 1925 silent film called “Tumbleweeds” and in 1953, Audie Murphy made a movie called “Tumbleweed.”

A 1935 Gene Autry movie was titled “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” also featured a hit song by the same name.