What the Western? Russian thistle

A warm wind whips up the dust as it blows down the abandoned street. Behind every window and saloon door faces peer out at the two men facing each other down. Fingers twitch as each waits for the other to draw. The seconds turn to hours as each eyes up the other with a cold stare of mutual hatred. A Tumbleweed rolls between the two of them and in that moment each chooses to draw on the other.

This classic, if not infamous, scene in almost any good western sums up what it was to live the life of the pioneer. It’s ingrained in the national conscious of America and has caught on throughout the world as something to aspire to. Yet something sticks out in this scene as completely out of place. The Tumbleweed, that iconic symbol that highlights the abandoned nature of the street as the gunfighters weigh each other up is in fact an invasive species. The Tumbleweed, or Russian thistle, (Salsola tragus) is a native annual of south-eastern Russia and western Siberia. It made its way to America in 1873 in contaminated bags of flax seeds brought in by Russian Immigrants to South Dakota. Thanks to its windblown method of seed dispersal and the fact that it thrives on disturbed soils the Russian thistle reached the Pacific coast by 1895 (most likely by catching a ride in livestock cars). Today the Russian thistle occupies a range of around 100 million square kilometres and is well adapted to the climate of California with its summer droughts and winter rains.

So there you have it, the next time you sit down to watch a western you can regale your friends with your knowledge of the tumbleweed. Not that I recommend interrupting a performance by the likes of Clint Eastwood, John Wayne or James Stewart.

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