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A young Russian thistle

A young Russian thistle


I wonder if I could impress anyone with my magnificent crop of tumbleweeds in a back field. Maybe I could find someone to impress on Facebook, someone living in New York or Chicago, someone who knows this “romantic” Western herbage from old western movies or the song by Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers.

No one around Elko would be impressed with my crop, especially anyone familiar with the common weed Russian thistle. Besides, many Elkoans probably have their own crop of tumbleweeds somewhere on their property.

The very un-romantic Russian thistle was introduced from Russia in the late 1800s and has now spread across much of the drier regions of North America. These plants form rounded shapes made of many branches. They may grow one to three feet high and up to five feet across. Small flowers produced from July to October develop into small, snail-shaped seeds.

As the plants dry out, they become rigid and spiny. When completely dry, blowing wind breaks off the stems at ground level and the round shapes help them roll across the ground. With enough tumbleweeds, fence lines can be buried with thousands of these blowing plants.

This clever rolling adaptation spreads perhaps 250,000 seeds downwind of the original plant. Then, these seeds require very little precipitation to germinate and establish.

The University of Nevada Cooperative Extension provides a good article on Russian thistle, which describes the seedlings as looking like small pine trees. Their long, thin leaves carry a reddish tinge and end in a spine. Older plants have red or purple stripes on their stems.

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Many Elko roadsides and vacant lots are covered with Russian thistle. It would be nice to have a law that says if someone clears ground, they are then responsible for treating the inevitable weeds that will cover that bare ground.

Cattle and sheep will eat the young, succulent plants but not after they mature. The typical removal strategy is by spraying young plants with a broadleaf-selective herbicide. Any physical removal should be done before seeds form. Plants can be pulled, dug or hoed, but if done after seeds form, the work just helps spread the seeds. It is important to plant other vegetation to take the place of these thistles.

If only the County Fair had a horticultural category for Russian thistle, I could easily earn a ribbon. I guess I could spray plants with lacquer and sell them over the Internet or build tumbleweed “snow men” for my yard, but no one in Elko is going to be impressed.


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