Tumbleweeds: Perfect Engineering, Class C Noxious, and Autumn Beautiful in Southern California

Susan Straight and her dog walks among tumbleweeds along the Santa Ana River in Riverside, CA. | Photo: Douglas McCulloh

The tumbleweed. Even the name is round and rolling off the tongue. We are not meant to think they are beautiful. But right now, they are unique explosions of hidden beauty, growing lush and abundant in the vacant lots and roadside acreage and not-yet developed land all over California, in the fallow farmland and especially, in the Santa Ana River area near my house. Tumbleweeds love disturbance. Yes. They hate compacted soil, or that which is already covered with other plants. So when a vacant lot is disked for fire control, or the areas of sandy earth alongside a river are cleared of brush and trees -- as was done earlier this year by tractors and workmen for the Army Corps of Engineers in some areas of the Santa Ana -- the crop which flourishes is salsola tragus.

Prickly Russian Thistle. According to history, the first seeds were brought accidentally, hitchhiking in a shipment of flaxseed in the 1890s from Russia to South Dakota. Can you imagine the field of flax, the delicate flowers, and then the green burst of thistle with tiny white sepals like a bomb set off in the center? Each tumbleweed can have up to 200,000 seeds ripening, waiting for the perfect combination of events.

This October, they are up to nine feet tall in the place where I walk the dog, and we see other walkers and dogs in the lush hallways where we meander along the powdered paths between thistle. The autumn yellow tones are vivid and melancholy: sunflower petals, wild tobacco blossoms like macaroni, cottonwood leaves and wild grapevines turning golden. As with so many plants here in Southern California, the native mingle with the introduced on each square foot of earth -- just as we humans are walking among them, native like me, and introduced like the Southeast Asian woman walking near me looking at bamboo shoots, and maybe the Spanish-speaking abuela and her daughter and two small children in strollers whom I often greet in the early dusk. A jimsonweed blossom -- native -- unfurls itself in the snowy-white and lavender-tinged trumpet as if accidentally dropped there.

Susan Straight and her dog walks among tumbleweeds along the Santa Ana River in Riverside, CA. | Photo: Douglas McCulloh

The tumbleweeds! They are Volkswagen sized! Khaki green explosions dominating the landscape now, like sculpted fantasies in Versailles, like massive hedges in a Roman villa. Nine feet tall, twenty feet in diameter -- this is because after the plowing, we had a rare monsoonal thunderstorm in late August which sent several inches of rain down in a few hours, right here. The perfect conditions for thistle.

Photo: Douglas McCollohAll my life here, I have loved tumbleweeds, even though they are not loveable. In Fontana, in Antelope Valley, in Chino and Glen Avon and lots of other places, fierce fall and winter winds pile the weeds so high people have been trapped in their homes, unable to open windows or doors. My mother tells a story of that kind of snowdrift, but golden dried weed drift, when I was very young in Glen Avon, near the Pomona Freeway. In the Antelope Valley, when miles of new housing tracts went up in the 1980s and '90s, massive drifts of tumbleweeds barricaded the tan stucco houses until careful mowing and eradication helped control the weeds. And the loving is difficult when it comes to cars -- I have a Hawaiian-born friend who moved to the Antelope Valley years ago and drove blithely over a tumbleweed on the high-desert freeway, thinking it was brittle and easily flattened. The main stem punctured her oil pan. (There was a reason the thistle was often called "puncture vine" in the 1920s.)

What they taught me was how to look inside. To study something hated for the unexpected moment of lovely. Classified as Introduced C List Noxious weeds by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the tumbleweeds of fall will collect the dew on these misty fall mornings. The water will glisten inside the thorny stems, linger on the tiny blossoms. Lean in close -- the smallest white and pink flowers, different on each bush, look like fireworks frozen in the green web of brambles. Or sometimes like miniature plates for fairies -- well, that's what I thought when I was small. Today, I remember that each bract of petals is protected by fierce spurs. But with the drops of silver clinging to thorns, the tumbleweeds are art and engineering and fantastic imagination looming over oblivious humans.

Photo: Douglas McCulloh

Perfect conditions -- late rain, even last week, and then a few more weeks of heat. Then, when the flowers have disappeared and the seeds wait, patiently, while the stems turn golden and the bush somehow rounds itself, the wind will roar over the desert and rush down the passes and howl down here to us, and the main stem will release each tumbleweed into the comic and terrifying dance only this thistle performs. Scaring cars on the freeway, piling onto the chainlink fences, and even flying at tree-level if hurled that high by a current. Somehow, every year, one or two giant golden cages of thorns float up from the river and into the arroyo and make it up the bluff to my own dead-end street, where they roll merrily up the asphalt and come to rest near the fallen palm fronds which look like lion tails along the curb.

I have picked out a few, these weeks, and when they come my way, this winter might be a good time for a SoCal classic, the tumbleweed snowman -- three bushes lashed together and tied to a tree, spray-painted white, with a scarf held on tight by the sharpest prickles and maybe a palm-frond broom.

About the Author

Susan Straight was born in Riverside, where she still lives. Her latest novel is "Between Heaven and Here." She teaches at UCRiverside and works with photographer Douglas McCulloh to document the Inland Empire.

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