We Can Thank Russia for This Iconic Symbol of the American West

A tumbleweed rolls across the street | © Maciej Bledowski/Shutterstock
A tumbleweed rolls across the street | © Maciej Bledowski/Shutterstock
A tumbleweed rolling across a desolate desert road has become synonymous with the American West and a kind of pioneer attitude, unafraid to set out for places unknown where the closest thing to a resource to rely on may be a—tumbleweed.

But as it turns out, the tumbleweed isn’t even American. Like many of the settlers who arrived in the West after arduous journeys from other countries, the tumbleweed is an international import. In the 1870s, a batch of flaxseed brought to Scotland, South Dakota from Russia carried the tumbleweed in seed form, technically called the Russian thistle, or Salsola tragus. Without any of the natural predators or conditions from Russia to keep the tumbleweed from spreading at an exceedingly rapid pace, the tumbleweed went right ahead and did so. A mere 15 years later, the weed was tumbling as far away as California and Canada.

But while we may think of tumbleweeds as a simple curiosity, people who live out west know better. A tenacious weed, tumbleweeds have been known to proliferate at a rate that drove people out of their homes or barricade them inside. When strong winds sweep across the prairie, tumbleweeds can become particularly pernicious. They even completely buried one town in New Mexico during a powerful storm. The drought in much of the West has highlighted another dangerous quality of the tumbleweed: they are highly flammable, and since they are very mobile, they are apt to make already out-of-control fires worse. They are also larger than many people know—the largest can reach the size of a small car.

Tumbleweeds © Joe Valtierra / Flickr

So just how did the tumbleweed come to symbolize the American West? Old Western films can take much of the credit. In them, tumbleweeds were often made to exemplify the cowboy spirit—individualist, self-reliant, and unafraid to traverse the wilderness alone. Several old westerns were even named for the weed, and a 1935 film called Tumbling Tumbleweeds even features a song of the same name.

As classic a symbol of the American West as the tumbleweed may be, they have become such a problem that scientists are hard at work devising ways to eradicate them efficiently. The U.S. Agricultural Research Service has discovered two fungal pathogens meant to infect and kill tumbleweeds.

But even if the scientists are successful, it seems unlikely that the tumbleweed will lose its place in Old Western lore. And its appeal has spread beyond spaghetti westerns; the tumbleweed is actually grown on purpose in some areas and shipped to buyers for decorative purposes. Tumbleweeds have adorned Ralph Lauren windows, Broadway plays, and Western-themed weddings. And—cowboys that they are—they will likely continue to do so.

Tumbleweeds caught in a New Mexican fence © Birdie Jaworski/Flickr