With winter on the High Plains comes the season of the tumbleweed. The Russian thistles that dried and snapped from their roots in the fall now rove the western plains with the winter winds, leaving their seed for next year’s crop. As a given part of winter, they’ve made their way into the seasonal holidays as well.
For several years, employees of the Albuquerque Metropolitan Arroyo Flood Control Authority have fabricated a giant snowman of tumbleweeds and placed it outside their facility along a busy interstate highway. Its appearance in late November has become an annual part of the city’s Christmas season celebrations.
The snowman provide a jollier view of the tumbleweed than experienced by many Albuquerque residents. In a 2013 article for National Geographic, George Johnson writes of his personal struggles with the tumbleweed menace and provides some historical background on its origins in the United States. It’s accompanied by a gallery of dramatic tumbleweed photos and makes mention of various ways the tumbleweed has become part of the culture of the west, including mention of Prairie Tumbleweed Farm, a mail order tumbleweed supplier near Garden City, Kansas. (And, of course, there’s the annual Tumbleweed Festival in Garden City.)
Based on thorough research by the USDA, it is believed the first Russian thistles (salsola tragus, scientifically) were sown accidently near the town of Scotland, South Dakota in 1873 or 1874 from contaminated flaxseed from Russia. By 1880 the USDA was receiving reports of the “strange plant” appearing across South Dakota and neighboring states. By the 1890’s a North Dakota legislator proposed building a fence around the entire state to keep the weed out.