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Flying tumbleweed

With dry land, high winds, powerful hybrid species and weed piles six feet tall, the West is in for a cinematic battle with these rolling monsters

Dakota Kim  – January 2, 2020 | Updated January 13, 2020

You might giggle at the mental image of tumbleweed, picturing the lonesome, dry bundle trundling over the highway bridge in “The Big Lebowski,” or every tumbleweed that ever rolled across a Western film screen. But for drivers near Richland, Washington, on New Year’s Eve, tumbleweeds became a massive menace — and the best excuse for missing a party, ever. Cue the hashtag: #Tumblegeddon.

Tumbleweed piles measuring 20 to 30 feet high shut down state highway SR 240 for 10 hours as the Department of Transportation and police force struggled to resurrect cars mummified in the mess. They even called in snow plows.

Tumbleweed invasions are the new normal in the West, joining a host of other wild wonders troubling our environs, from fires to earthquakes to mudslides. If you still can’t take a tumbleweed seriously, imagine yourself raking leaves. Now imagine that those leaf piles are anywhere between three feet and 30 feet tall, interlocked like Legos by tiny, prickly thorns, and propelled by 50-mile-per-hour gusts. That’s what the residents of Victorville faced when trying to control the persistent uninvited guests.

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What are these seemingly comical tumbling balls? Like pickles, it’s the process, not the ingredient, that makes a tumbleweed. What we call tumbleweeds are actually several different species, but especially the genus Kali (in the amaranth family), that dry up, break off from a root or stem, and drop seeds as they tumble along in the wind. The Russian thistle, or Kali tragus (formerly Salsola tragus; a relative of the Italian edible green agretti), has plagued the West since 1870, when it hitchhiked to South Dakota along with a shipment of European flax seeds.

Areas that have been disturbed or cultivated are especially at risk, including eroded areas, dry areas with little vegetation, roadsides and farmland. These non-native plants spread quickly, taking advantage of dry land and strong winds — like the multiple rounds of strong gusts that have fueled our intense wildfires over the past few years.

What’s worse, a new hybrid tumbleweed, Salsola ryanii, is rapidly spreading across California, and it’s twice as heavy as its parent tumbleweed, human-sized at six feet tall and super-strong thanks to its multiple sets of noxious weed parent chromosomes. The Frankenstein tumbleweed may be the most unexpected natural hazard of the near future.

Though you can of course manually hack or mow tumbleweeds while they’re still green, or use pre-emergent herbicides to control them, that process can be costly and time-consuming on large parcels where infestation is prevalent. Repopulating empty lots with native plants in a more effective and efficient long-term solution. There’s never been a better reason to turn a vacant lot into a wildflower meadow.

Science’s brilliant answer thus far? Find a predator that’s a match for the powerful noxious weeds — one from the Eurasian steppes that tumbleweeds hail from. In the 1990s, Hungarian plant pathologists sent the U.S. Agricultural Research Service’s Foreign Disease-Weed Science Research Unit a sample of Eurasian fungi that they noticed killing the tumbleweeds.

Until the fungi are approved and widely used, try to mow out existing Russian thistle before it becomes a tumbleweed, and prevent any dry tumbleweeds from accumulating near your house, since they are a fire hazard. Plant fire-resistant native plants near your house and prepare your house for any wildfires. When driving, avoid swerving if possible when faced with tumbleweeds, as swerving may be a hazard not only to your own vehicle but also others’ cars. Stay in contact with local fire departments, police departments and neighbors via NextDoor or other social networking apps, and plan to have emergency supplies in your house and vehicle should you be trapped by these monster tumbleweeds.