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Albuquerque Innsights

A local innkeeper knows New Mexico secrets and tells anyone who will listen.

From Russia, With Love? Tumbleweed – An American West Icon

Spring is here in Albuquerque and one of the telltale signs is certainly the appearance of tumbleweeds.
I was driving by the old Albuquerque Indian School property this morning and I saw a pile of tumbleweeds so high it was scary. I went back later and took a picture of it because I thought it would be a good post for this week. (While looking at the picture, be reminded that the fence they are piled up against is eight feet tall.) Pile of tumbleweeds These tumbleweeds look like they are trying to escape their captivity. Believe me, the property owners wish they would.

How many Cowboy westerns have you seen with at least one scene including a tumbleweed blowing across the road? When I moved out here to the great southwest, the first time I saw one I cracked up laughing, because it was just like in the movies. I’ve been laughing at them ever since, and I’ve seen them in all sizes, even as big as a Chevy Suburban, chasing cars down the road. It’s kind of creepy too, because it appears kind of sci-fi as the tumbleweeds seemingly have brains and change direction with their prey. At very least, the cars appear to be tumbleweed magnets.

Every year in Albuquerque right around the Christmas holidays, someone creates tumbleweed snowman along Interstate 40 just before you get to the I-25 interchange. It has become an regular Albuquerque Holiday Tradition and we have all come to expect it. I googled this tumbleweed snowman and found the culprits – crews from the Albuquerque Metropolitan Arroyo Flood Control Authority, and they have been constructing the infamous Tumbleweed Snowman every year since 1995.

Tumbleweed is an all American thing, right? No – not at all, because this icon of the American West came from Russia, without the love. Cowboy are American, the tumbleweeds, not so much. Our tumbleweed is actually a weed from southern Russia, aptly named Russian ThistleSalsola tragus, Goosefoot Family (Chenopodiaceae), also called Tumbleweed or Wind Witch. I’ve never heard them called a Wind Witch. We have a Ditch Witch, La Llarona, but not a Wind Witch, but I digress.

How did the Russian Thistle get to America? The story I was told is that someone thought it would be a good plant to grow on the plains for cattle to graze on, so they brought it over, but the cattle won’t touch it. It will only grow where the soil has been disturbed, so growing on the open plains didn’t happen either, but tumbleweeds DO grow on every empty lot in Albuquerque, and it is a very common sight to see them blowing around the city when the winds kick up in the spring.

New Mexico is the perfect home for this weed. They don’t need much water at all, and like alkaline soil. Russian Thistle starts out as a small succulent looking plant and quickly grows big (up to 5′ tall), and round on a single stem that is usually green with red stripes. In winter they they die and dry up and then in the spring they will break off from the ground with the wind and the more they are blown, the rounder they get. They are annuals, so they must reseed themselves every year, and they do a great job of it while they roll around all over the place until they get caught in a fence or something like it. They are kind of thorny, which can make their removal a challenge, but the thorns are not too stiff, just very scratchy.

When I spot a tumbleweed on the road I’m hugely amused to see drivers jerk their cars to dodge them, big and small, as if they could do damage when they hit. The small ones do get stuck under cars sometimes, but do no harm and break up very quickly. When our Albuquerque bed and breakfast guests see the tumbleweeds they come back to Adobe Nido and tell all about it. Especially the guests who are from Europe. They always mention that it was “just like in the cowboy movies”, and frequently say they were “chased by a tumbleweed”.

Since I decided to write this post I did a little research on the Russian Thistle or Tumbleweeds. I found that the story I heard might not be true, and the more accepted theory is that they were first reported in the United States on or around 1877 in South Dakota. It is thought they were unknowingly imported with flax seed brought in by Ukrainian farmers. This gave the plant the common nameĀ  – Russian Thistle. Like I said before, from Russia, but without the love.

I know the weird things about Albuquerque!
Sarah Dolk, Adobe Nido Bed & Breakfast
Expert on Destination Albuquerque and Central New Mexico!

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copyright 2009 :: sarah dolk, adobe nido bed and breakfast, albuquerque nm :: photos by susan see, abq, nm & marianne groszko, mariannephotography.net