Russian Thistle

Russian Thistle Fenceline

"I'll keep rolling along,
Deep in my heart is a song,
Here on the range I belong,
Drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds."
— Tumbling Tumbleweeds, Lyrics by Bob Nolan (circa 1930s)

If you live in Eastern Washington, you have probably driven over, sprayed, pulled out and maybe cursed this thorny plant. Tumbleweeds detach from their roots in late fall and await a wind to drive them head-over-heels across landscape and lake to disseminate their seeds. That’s right, we said ‘across lake.’ In a strong wind, tumbleweeds blow into the water, the wind drives them to the far shore, and they begin rolling along again as if nothing stood in their way.

Strong winds send thousands of these plants racing across the landscape, each trying to spread their seeds ahead of the other. A tumbleweed race can be a white-knuckle event as first one, then another weed pulls ahead, and then both are bested by a surging crowd!

Russian thistles are prolific. A large plant can hold as many as 250,000 seeds. The seed is actually a small, coiled embryonic plant inside its seed case, and it can germinate in as little as 12 hours after exposure to loose soil.

While no where near as nutritious as native plants, Russian thistle does at least offer some food value, unlike many of the other invasive plants covering the West. Cattle and sheep will eat it, and it is a small component in mule deer and elk diets, until it matures and becomes spiny. It is actually well-liked by prairie dogs, and pronghorn eat it readily. Several bird species, including scaled and Gambel's quail, will eat it, as well as some small mammals. However, Russian thistle is nonetheless a poor substitute for native plants.

Tumbleweeds that have broken free pile up against fences and buildings, causing fire hazards. Ecosystems are threatened and crops diluted with this troublesome weed. It is a severe hindrance to many recreational activities, as it clogs trails, boat ramps, etc., and is difficult (and painful) to walk through. Sadly, though, Russian thistle will be with us for the foreseeable future.