Tumbleweeds in the Arizona Desert


Judy Hedding


If you're traveling to the greater Phoenix area—especially to the desert city of Chandler, Arizona—you might see a large circular bush rolling across the dry landscape. These plants are called tumbleweeds locally, but their real name is the Russian thistle.

The tumbleweed is often thought of as the symbol for the American West, appearing in old western films and modern comedies set in the dry landscape of the Arizona and Nevada deserts. However, Russian thistles were originally brought here by Ukrainian farmers unintentionally and are not native to North America.

On a windy day in Phoenix and the surrounding area, you're likely to see these large weeds tumbling across roads and into fences. If you're driving in the area, don't try to dodge them—they won't cause your car much damage if you hit them, but losing control of your vehicle by swerving could result in a serious accident.

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Why Tumbleweeds Tumble

Yucca, prickly pear and tumbleweed in Arizona
Steve Parker/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Like all plants, reproducing and spreading its seeds is the main purpose of the tumbleweed, but this remarkable plant has a slightly different approach than most weeds: it rolls.

Tumbleweeds grow into a round, bushy plant about three feet tall on dry plains, in fields, and along roadsides, generally where grain-growing and other grassy areas. When they reach maturity and produce seeds, Russian thistles break off at the base, dry out, and tumble into the wind. Russian thistles can produce up to 250,000 seeds, and the tumbling serves to spread those seeds wherever it tumbles, guaranteeing that there will be more tumbleweeds in the future.

Because these seeds release pollen and seeds, people who visit the Phoenix area during the dry season may experience seasonal allergies. People with pigweed and amaranth allergies also typically have allergies to tumbleweeds.

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Fun Facts and Tumbleweed Trivia

Russian Thistle in California
Dustin Blakey/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Tumbleweeds can now be found throughout the southwestern United States, including in Texas and New Mexico. That's because they thrive in arid, flat environments with high winds where they can roll unobstructed, spreading their seeds as far as possible.

While they may appear fairly whimsical rolling across an open plain, pileups of these plants can be dangerous. Since most of a tumbleweed is dead, the material is highly flammable and rather sharp and pointy. Tumbleweed pileups have been known to cause road closures and building fires in desert cities in Texas and Arizona.

However, there may be another value to tumbleweeds as well. ​A study has revealed that tumbling tumbleweeds soak up depleted uranium from contaminated soils at weapons testing grounds, making the area more environmentally stable.

As an added note, one of the most famous cowboy songs of all time, "Tumbling Tumbleweeds," was written in 1932 by Bob Nolan of the Sons of the Pioneers and inspired by these rolling plants.

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Chandler, Arizona Tumbleweed Christmas Tree

Chandler Tumbleweed Christmas Tree
City of Chandler

While many people might under-appreciate the value of tumbleweeds, some others harvest and sell them as craft and decorative items. The city of Chandler, which is just a few miles outside of Phoenix, even constructs their annual Christmas tree from Russian thistle townsfolk have gathered throughout the year.

You can see the Chandler Tumbleweed Christmas Tree during the annual holiday celebration, or help residents gather tumbleweeds any time of year. Many of the local shops also offer a chance to purchase some of their unique tumbleweed creations.

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