Several years ago, mom gave me a sweatshirt advertising Hooker, Oklahoma, as the Tumbleweed Capital of the world. After a recent drive across the Oklahoma and Texas Panhandle, I’m certain Hooker is not the only center point of Russian thistle abundance. Winds that day blew an average of 40 mph so we saw droves of prickly Russian immigrants racing pell-mell across three states. Fence lines trapped enough to fuel miles of potential prairie fire. Clearly, this transplant’s adjusted well to arid western soils.
These herbaceous invaders adapted to the Great Plains environment better than many homo sapien immigrants who hit American shores during the same era. The tumbleweed’s human counterparts often left for easier pickings that included more moisture and less wind. This forb, however, took root and multiplied like creatures mentioned in biblical plagues. It prefers disturbed soil—so farmers breaking virgin grassland and then abandoning their efforts unintentionally supported the hardy newcomer. Aridity doesn’t hurt them, and winds strong enough to deform trees and make flags fly at 90 degree angles guarantees each plant sows its 250,000 seeds.
Think of that--one plant produces several hundred thousand potential offspring. Scientists have documented how many actually take root, mature, and reproduce. By the 1890s, researchers reported the first of these Ukrainian hitchhikers arrived in Scotland, South Dakota, in the 1870s. Before 1900, the government assigned U.S. botanist Lyster Hoxey Dewey to investigate this curse to western agriculturists. Dewey, wrote, “The rapidity with which the Russian thistle has spread, both in infesting new territory and in thoroughly covering that already infested, far exceeds that of any weed known in America.” According to writer Doug Main, the only two states that don’t have tumbleweeds are Alaska and Florida. That’s a record-breaking invasion!
The day I drove across the Panhandle, herds of rolling thistles bounded over barbwire fences, surging across roads. This dark force made me think of millions of roaming bison 150 years ago. Due to sheer size, these mammals halted train travel. The tumbling seed-sowers I encountered didn’t halt traffic, but they slowed it.
Due to wind speeds, thorny orbs, small and large, rocketed across flat grasslands. I was glad to travel protected in a vehicle and not afoot like pastured cattle or wild critters. A thistle scouring of this magnitude would leave a being picking stickers for weeks. Unfortunately, these dried plants came in numbers so enormous I couldn’t avoid whacking one after another and dragged several beneath my vehicle until friction shattered and scattered them.
While I smacked some, others slammed into the sides of my Toyota hard enough I felt vibrations through the steering wheel. I’d like to think these collisions halted their seed dispersion, but that’s a vain wish. In fact, I’ve probably introduced Oklahoma thistle DNA to Kansas varieties.
Hookerites may disagree, but that sweatshirt’s claim to fame limits the scope of this invasive plant. The entire Great Plains is the Tumbleweed Capital of America.