Tumbling Tumbleweeds (Image: Mary Jane)

Late one night in September of 1968 I was driving my 1959 Plymouth Savoy across the desolate Colorado plains somewhere west of Greely. A windy, moonless night, the headlights lit up a narrow length of gray asphalt a hundred feet or so in front of me. Rusted skeletal remains of barbed-wire fences flew into the arc of light in front of me and just as quickly vanished into the night. This was cattle ranch country—hundred thousand acre ranches were common. Most of the land in this area is semi-arid and at certain times of the year a single cow would need a hundred acres of grazing land to stay alive—assuming he could move fast enough to cover it all before he starved.

After hours of driving through the blackness I was pretty zoned out—the term “highway hypnosis” comes to mind. Suddenly a huge white object flies into the headlights crashing into the front of the car, large and small pieces smash into the windshield and shatter, flying away into the night.

To say it scared me would be a world-class understatement. I immediately pulled off the road, got out to inspect for damage and figure out what happened. A few bits of dry twigs were stuck in the front grill—there was no damage I could see.

I was new to the high plains of Colorado—a transferring student attending one the state’s excellent universities—and what hit me was a common tumble weed blowing across the windy landscape. It was only the first of many I would run into—in the course of day and night travel—during the three years I lived there.

They were always blowing across the new campus which sat on a barren hill—shrubs and trees had not yet been planted so the wind blew unimpeded and the tumble weeds could always be seen clustering in corners of building, piled up against chain-link fences and wedged between cars in the parking lot. After a while you stop noticing them. They can range in size from a basketball to a Volkswagen bug—the most common size was two to three feet in diameter.

I did a little reading about tumble weeds in preparation for this post. Probably most people know it already (but it’s best not to assume I’ve been told) but a tumble weed is just a regular green leafy, flowering plant–a small bush–that in dry weather dries up and breaks off at the base of the stem and rolls away on the breeze. Obviously they do best in open, flat or rolling, windy country. There are about a dozen species but the most common in Western United States cattle country where I was at, is the Russian Thistle or Salsola Tragus. As American a symbol as the tumble weed is, it originally came from the Ukraine in the mid 1800s in shipments of Flax Seed. I read someplace the first documented mention of tumble weeds blowing around was dated 1887 in Nebraska. Tumble weeds are also sometimes called “Wind Witches.”

Why do they tumble? I can honestly say that question never occurred to me back then—or since. I learned a few hours ago there is in fact a reason—seed dispersal. The average tumble weed has about 250,000 seeds and yeah—rolling around for miles across open country seems like a great way to spread them around.

Beside smashing into them as I sped across the plains, the main thing that I remember about them is, kids in the dorm I lived in, bringing them into their rooms and making Christmas trees out of them when it got to be that time of year.

I kind of figured making a Christmas tree out of a tumble weed wasn’t something college students in Colorado invented but never looked into it until now. There’s a couple of links below you can click on and learn about tumble weed Christmas trees. Apparently it’s an old American west tradition. I guess it came about because evergreen trees weren’t readily available in the semi-arid vastness of the American west and because a lot of people couldn’t afford a regular tree. I also read Mesquite trees and Antler shed are also recruited as Christmas trees out west—though I don’t remember any Mesquite Trees or Antler Shed being brought into the dorm.

http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/470759/unique_and_inexpensive_homemade_christmas.html?cat=30

http://billingsgazette.com/news/state-and-regional/wyoming/image_9b6b38eb-51d8-52d4-9d2a-7417e8826cf5.html

What I do remember seeing (consistent with information I found for this post) is people would spray them with silver or white paint—sometime sprinkle glitter on them while the paint was still wet then put decorations on them. I have this image in my mind of tumble-weed “trees” decorated with construction-paper chains (like elementary-school kids were taught to make back all those days), strings of popcorn and the usual paper, plastic and thin glass ornaments. I suppose lights were strung on them too but back then Christmas lights got hot and a hot light on a bone dry woody plant covered with paint really doesn’t seem like a good idea—especially if it’s sitting in your living room.

The town of Chandler Arizona has an annual tradition of building a Christmas tree out of tumble weeds—a big one—about 25 or 30 feet tall. Here’s a link you can click on to see a slide show of how they build and light it each year:

http://www.chandleraz.gov/default.aspx?pageid=165

I suppose it would make sense to have some cool pictures of tumble weeds to accompany this post but the last time I saw a tumble weed—up close and personal—Richard Nixon was in office—1971 probably. I couldn’t think of any image I had that would even come close so I’m just posting another shot of my favorite model—Mary Jane—not because she has any connection to tumble weeds (that I know of) but just because she’s my favorite model.

And finally there is the only song I know that celebrates tumble weeds (I’m sure you old-timers were waiting for this)—that song is called—oddly enough—“Tumbling Tumbleweed.” It was written in 1932 by Bob Nolan—one of the founding members of the old Western band, “Sons of the Pioneers.” It was a big hit for them in the 1940s and they played it in a number of movies—one of them being a Roy Rogers flick (you old-timers will remember Roy).

Here’s the video—prepare to be underwhelmed:

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