Pictured here is a plant everybody in the western United States is familiar with. Most folks don’t notice these until they are dried and being blown about the countryside. They are an icon in the western movie genre often shown blowing across dry, sandy country to evoke the feeling of the wild west. It is ironic that this symbol of the old west is an introduced species known as Kali tragus, the Russian Thistle; or more commonly, the tumbleweed.
In this image, you can see the tiny pink flowers of this member of the Amaranthaceae family. You can also see the sharp thorns at the points of its leaves. Anyone who has handled tumbleweeds bare-handed can attest to the effectiveness of these thorns at making you think twice about handling them without gloves. Some folks become sensitive to their wind blown pollen and others may break out in a rash from being scratched by these thorns.
In this image you can see the pistil of the tumbleweed flower hanging down near the bottom center of the bloom. Also visible are the red stripes on the stem that give an interesting contrast to the tiny pink blooms.
In the final image, you can see a flower with its pistil erect and its tiny stamens projecting beyond the end.
A native of Eurasia, Russian Thistle seeds are thought to have been brought to South Dakota in a shipment of flax seeds around 1870. Since that time, tumbleweeds have been blown all over the Great Plains and western United States and have become well established. The very young plants can be consumed by livestock and wildlife but they are not consumed at a high enough rate to keep their numbers in check.
Tumbleweeds are a fire hazard when they become dry and are blown across the country side where they can form large piles along fences, buildings and parked cars. Ignition of these masses can destroy these items. Additionally, burning tumbleweeds can be blown across prairies creating a fast spreading wildfire that is difficult to control because it will jump across firebreaks.
Despite their dangerous qualities, tumbleweeds can make a living in very dry country; they feed deer, elk, antelope, bison, and prairie dogs as forage and many seed-eating birds with their numerous seeds; they spread their seeds as they roll which is unique among plants. They have been used as fuel for cooking in some parts of the world, and were used in bales to make houses on the Nebraska prairie. When examined closely, they are beautiful in their own right and admirable for their abilities to thrive under very challenging conditions.