What You Need to Know About Tumbleweed

closeup of a tumbleweed plant

An Old West icon, you can often find tumbleweed rolling or bouncing on the side of the road or piling up along fence lines. But what do we know about this invasive weed species? Tumbleweed displaces native plants and thrives in drought conditions.

If you’re struggling to control this troublesome plant, you’ve come to the right place. Discover everything you need to know about tumbleweed, including how to get rid of it and prevent it from returning.

What is tumbleweed?

If you’ve ever watched a Western (chock full of cowboys, bounty hunters, and gunslingers with Stetsons), you’re familiar with that ball of drifting, bouncing tumbleweed. Russian thistle (Salsola tragus), the most common species, is an annual broadleaf plant that flourishes in arid areas and dry soil, typically growing into a rounded bush over three feet tall.

To the untrained eye, young tumbleweed can look like turfgrass, sprouting straight, soft, green blades from a pink root in the ground. By summer, it usually boasts a stiff stem, narrow, spiny leaves, and pink, yellow, or white flowers surrounding a single-seeded fruit. When the plant dies in the winter, the bushy sections break off and blow away, sowing hundreds of new seeds wherever the wind takes them.

From California and Washington to New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, and South Dakota, Russian thistle can be found drifting, somersaulting, and multiplying in almost every state in the country, wreaking havoc on properties and being a general nuisance.

Photo Credit: Jack N. Mohr / Canva Pro / License

The dangers of tumbleweed

Unsurprisingly, few people are partial to tumbleweed growing in their yards. After all, it looks better in Western movies, propagating individualism and nostalgia for the large open spaces of the American West. Due to its fast seed dispersal rate, tumbleweed can make life difficult in plenty of ways. Here’s what you need to watch out for:

  • Wildfires: Due to its dry branches, tumbleweed is a fire hazard, contributing to wildfires and putting lives and properties at risk.
  • Accidents: Bouncing along roads, balls of tumbleweed can cause accidents or even completely bury cars or homes found along the way.
  • Disrupted irrigation: Tumbleweed often blocks waterways or damages irrigation systems.
  • Ecosystem damage: Insects love to nestle in tumbleweed. As tumbleweed bounces from place to place, these insects spread viruses that kill desired plants, damaging the ecosystem.
  • Allergies: If you suffer from allergies, stay as far away from tumbleweed as possible. The pollen it produces in the spring and summer can irritate the skin and cause breathing problems in people with asthma.

How to get rid of tumbleweed

tumbleweed on white background
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It may be a struggle to eliminate tumbleweed for good. This unrelenting weed can germinate in the toughest of conditions, quickly becoming a nightmare for home and business owners. If you find yourself looking for ways to get rid of this pesky weed, we’ve rounded up some elimination methods that might work for you.

Manual control

Before you do anything else, correctly identify the Russian thistle plant and consider its surrounding environment. Certain factors allow it to grow and thrive, including:

  • Dry, loose soil along driveways, sidewalks, fences, roadsides, vacant lots, and crop fields
  • Neglected lawns and landscapes with little irrigation and care

If you catch the thistle plant in its early seedling stage, you can pull it out of the ground by the roots. Doing this will prevent the tumbleweed from setting seeds and spreading, but keep in mind that you’ll need to be diligent about it. Once it matures and starts producing seeds, it may take up to three years to eliminate the pest from your property. 

Another thing you can do while the plant is young is to keep up with your mowing schedule. Immediately after mowing your lawn, dispose of all cut pieces to inhibit potential re-growth.

Chemical control

If applied correctly, some herbicides can effectively kill tumbleweed.

In the pre-emergent stage (between April and June), use a sprayer to apply any herbicide containing isoxaben, trifluralin, oryzalin, or pendimethalin.

In the post-emergent stage (between July and November), try 2,4-D or dicamba, two selective chemicals that won’t kill everything they touch (especially grasses). Suit up with proper protective gear for your eyes, hands, and body, and apply them as instructed on the label. Afterward, carefully monitor the tumbleweed situation in your yard and re-apply the herbicides as needed.

Crop control

Probably the most effective tumbleweed control method is reseeding infested areas with other plants–preferably native plants. A garden full of healthy, resistant plants will prevent the establishment of Russian thistle.

How to prevent tumbleweed

tumbleweed in a yard
Photo Credit: nccmrm97 / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Once you’ve successfully removed all traces of Russian thistle from your yard, start implementing a prevention plan. Check out all you can do to keep this weed away from your property for good:

  • Irrigate regularly: Keep your property well-irrigated, promoting moist, healthy soil. Try not to overwater or underwater, as this can invite pests, diseases, and you guessed it–weeds (tumbleweeds, that is).
  • Treat early: Treat any infested areas immediately (if you missed your pre-emergent opportunity window).
  • Encourage natives: Keep a good sunlight-to-shade ratio on your property, as thistle hates shade. Also, feed your soil regularly to encourage diverse and healthy plant growth, leaving no room for tumbleweed or any other pesky weeds trying to push their way through.
  • Limit foot traffic: Thistle (and weeds, in general) have an easier time sprouting in loose soil, so keep the ground as undisturbed as possible if you’re not using it for sowing plants or turfgrass.

FAQ about tumbleweed

How did tumbleweed arrive in the U.S.?

Tumbleweed hails from Russia and the steppes on the eastern part of the Ural mountains. Russian immigrants brought it to the U.S. via contaminated flax seeds in 1873. Unhindered by any diseases or predators, it rapidly established itself by pushing native species out of their natural North American habitat. Within 20 years of its introduction to the U.S., it had covered around 36,000 square miles of land.

Where else in the world does tumbleweed grow?

In short, tumbleweed grows where the wind blows the seeds. It can be found growing (and thriving) in many parts of the world, including North America (the U.S. and Canada), Europe, China, North Africa, parts of South Africa, South America, and Australia.

What other tumbleweed species can be found in North America?

Along with Russian thistle, North America is home to several other hybrid tumbleweed species, such as:

  • Salsola gabicola
  • Salsola ryanii
  • Salsola australis

Does tumbleweed have any benefits?

In its early, seedling stage, Russian thistle feeds birds, cattle, mule deer, bison, prairie dogs, and elk, becoming part of the ecosystem. Also interesting to note is that during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, it was the only plant able to grow when others were long gone, feeding cattle and providing a valuable food source for starving people.

Professional help at your fingertips

You know by now just how difficult it is to get rid of tumbleweed. Not everyone is equipped for the intricate removal process and professional help can make a huge difference. Let Lawn Love connect you with a local weed control expert. They can examine your yard and take appropriate action to rid you of the pesky tumbleweed for good. What’s not to love about that?

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Andie Ioó

In my free time, I enjoy traveling with my husband, sports, trying out new recipes, reading, and watching reruns of '90s TV shows. As a way to relax and decompress, I enjoy landscaping around my little yard and DIY home projects.