My family grows wheat in Eastern Oregon’s arid high desert, and many of my friends are farmers, too. Wheat is one of the few crops that grow here, where summers are hot, winters are cold, and moisture is precious. The exception is, of course, weeds — healthy “crops” of weeds.
Russian Thistle Weeds
If you’re a gardener and you fight the war against weeds, magnify that by a few hundred times and you begin to understand the problems facing farmers. Russian thistle is one of the worst. If you have this pest popping up in your garden, you already know the taproots extend several feet into the soil.
Getting rid of this invasive plant is impossible, and unfortunately, farmers turn to chemicals to try and gain an upper hand. Believe me, farmers are an environmentally conscious bunch and don’t enjoy using chemicals, but otherwise, the weeds suck moisture from the soil, interfere with farming operations, decrease yield, and harbor both pests and disease.
Crop scientists are studying biological controls, like certain types of mites or boring moths, but so far, none have proven effective against this noxious weed. In the meantime, Russian thistle is becoming immune to many chemicals, including glyphosate.
What Is A Tumbleweed?
I have to stop here and admit that I have a little soft spot for Russian thistle, but let me clarify why. It’s not the prickly, invasive weed that I like; it’s the tumbleweeds. Russian thistle dries up in late summer or fall and turns into big, round, yellow, skeletal globes. The dry plant pulls loose from the roots and the tumbleweeds start tumbling.
When the wind blows, which is often, I stand at my kitchen window and watch the tumbleweeds blow across the field across the road from my house — always blowing from south to north, without fail. The tumbleweeds pile up against anything that gets in their way — usually fences or buildings — sometimes piling up 6 feet (2 m.) or more.
Unfortunately, each tumbleweed distributes several thousand seeds far and wide, so the future of the plant is guaranteed. Any place the soil is loose, Russian thistle will germinate and grow.
Yes, I like tumbleweeds, but they aren’t without their problems. They fill drainage canals and clog water treatment plants. They create fire hazards. They trigger allergies in some people. They are nuisances that blow into the road and surprise drivers who steer suddenly to miss them. (Don’t swerve if a tumbleweed rolls out in the roadway. They may catch you by surprise, but they won’t hurt your car.)
Still, I have a soft spot for tumbleweeds.
“I’ll keep rolling along,
Deep in my heart as a song,
Here on the range I belong,
Drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds.”
— Sons of the Pioneers