A Note from Cottonwood Corners

In setting the scene for a Western movie, the camera from a distance shows a dusty street in front of some old wooden buildings which need paint.  You can hear the wind whistling between the buildings as it stirs up clouds of dust and drives tumbleweeds across the street and up against the buildings.  This is the typical western town of an earlier time when cowboys and cattle were everywhere.

Although the tumbleweed is often seen as a symbol of the old American West, it is not native to the American West.  Tumbleweeds are a group, not a single species.  Probably, the most common and familiar in the West is the Russian thistle (Salsola tragus).  Currently there are seven species of Salsola in North America.  None are native and all are referred to as tumbleweeds.

The Russian thistle was first introduced into the United States in 1873 or 1874 in flaxseed that was brought to America from Russia.  It was planted on a farm near Scotland, in Bon Homme County, South Dakota.  The land there is somewhat hilly and corn was the chief crop raised at the time.

Because of the wooded ravines and the standing corn stalks, the Russian thistle was at first slow in spreading to new fields.  The tumbleweed rolled into Yankton County in 1876 and spread its seeds along the western county line.  The first Russian thistle appeared in the fields of Yankton County in 1877.  It continued to gradually cover new territory until 1888, when it had infested most of the counties between the Missouri and James rivers south of the Huron, Pierre, and Deadwood Division of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad.

The strong winds during the winter of 1887-88, followed by the dry summer of 1888 most likely caused the weed to spread within two years to nearly all the remaining counties between the Missouri and James rivers.  Perhaps contaminated flax seed brought into Faulk or McPherson counties also assisted in spreading this undesired plant.

By 1890, it had infested the southern tier of counties in North Dakota.  At about the same time, it had invaded the northern part of Iowa and the northeastern corner of Nebraska.  By 1894 it had been steadily spreading until it was in every county east of the Missouri River and twenty counties in North Dakota.  It had also crossed to the west side of the Missouri in at least four places in both Dakotas.  It was then estimated that it had covered about 35,000 square miles of the northern plains in just twenty years.

It had gone rolling and bouncing across the country at a racing speed and scattered seeds at every bounce.  Since there were few fences, trees, and other obstacles to stop this monster it just kept rolling and rolling and rolling.

There are some characteristics of the Russian thistle which make it much more troublesome than other weeds.  It is armed with sharp spines much stronger than those of common thistles.  These spines made it difficult to drive horses through an infested field.  In some places, farmers and ranchers found it necessary to wrap their horse’s legs with leather to protect them from the spines.  Horses running in a pasture were often injured by having the skin on their legs badly lacerated.  The spines broke off under the skin and caused festering sores which required medication.

The Russian thistle was the worst rolling tumbleweed on the prairie.  The seeds were not just here and there as with other weeds.  They were everywhere!

Some plants were found to be six feet in diameter and weighed about twenty pounds.  They carried up to 250,000 seeds as they raced across the treeless, fenceless plains.  They scattered seeds at every bounce as they rolled across Rosebud country.  At maturity the heaviest and strongest part of the plant was the seed-bearing branches.

In October, 1880, a specimen of the Russian thistle had been sent from Yankton to the U. S. Department of Agriculture office in Washington, D.C.  Apparently, no further complaints about the plant as a weed were received until the fall of 1891, when specimens were sent in from Aberdeen, S. D., and Grand Rapids, N. D. (located on the James River southeast of Jamestown, N. D.)  With each of these two submissions were urgent requests for information which might aid in checking the spread of this pesky weed.  In his Annual Report to the President, the Secretary of Agriculture for 1891 described the plant and he recommended early fall plowing.  State legislation was also suggested.

South Dakota farmers shipped a steady supply of boxed plants to Washington, along with stinging complaints.  One farmer wrote:  “This obnoxious weed has become so formidable in some portions of the state, notably in Scotland, South Dakota, where the Russians formerly settled, that many farmers are driven from their home on account of it.  A man who was there some time ago states that farmers were leaving their land by the dozens simply because of the evil weed.”

This was the plant which the members of the South Dakota House of Representatives in February of 1903 proposed as our state flower.  Could there have been anything nuttier than the Russian thistle becoming our state flower?

The never-ending spread of the Russian thistle later stimulated a farmer in North Dakota to suggest that his state build a fence along the border to keep the tumbling tumbleweed from entering.

 

Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on November 3, 2021

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