By Bob Huber
As long as we’re preoccupied with plucking tumbleweeds from our teeth, it should be noted that guys in white jackets label this rambling sticker bush Solsola tragus. A less scientific moniker is “Russian thistle” or “pig weed,” which is related loosely to the goosefoot family. I knew you’d want to hear that.
Hence our local tumbleweeds should never be mistaken for the Cnicus altissimus, or even the Cnicus syriacus, and they certainly weren’t part of the Scottish Order of the Thistle. The Order of the Thistle, which was a bunch of guys in tights led by the Gentleman Usher of the Green Rod, came from an edict by King James VII of Scotland who was also called King James II of England, causing him no end of trouble cashing checks.
Anyway, the Order of the Thistle was outlawed during the reign of William and Mary, but it was revived by Queen Anne in 1703. Queen Anne never could leave well enough alone.
But more pertinent to our local problem is the need to find where tumbleweeds come from, and why hasn’t Roswell discovered this alien plant and made hay of it?
After days of research conducted as I drank my coffee this morning, I found that Russian thistle came from Russia — well, duhhh — along with other exotic items like fur hats, sorrowful music, and dull books you were forced to read in school. Western lore has it the tumbleweed was transplanted by well-meaning, bow-legged guys who were seeking drought-free pasture.
These guys were probably the same ones who introduced a batch of other funny stuff to America such as Chinese elm, English ivy, killer bees, and apricot-flavored gin.
When I was a kid during World War II, tumbleweeds were of prime importance to us patriots of juvenile persuasion, because it was our practice to gather them off fencerows for rocket fuel and other incendiary needs. At one point we even tried to interest the military in this weapon of mass destruction, but they were too busy with atomic bombs and other trivia.
Which brings to mind a specific tumbleweed experiment we conducted one summer day when we jammed hundreds of them down an abandoned well, making it a world-class canon, and topped it off with rocks the size of softballs.
It began on a Saturday when my scholarly associate, Smooth Heine, became inspired by the 14th episode of an Oscar-winning Flash Gordon serial at the local movie house in which Flash was trapped by evil robots wearing tinfoil suits. Flash wiped them all out by using a homemade shotgun loaded with inflammable plants from the planet Glutinus or someplace like that.
The upshot was, Smooth figured if Flash could stuff incendiary plants down a length of bamboo, toss in some gravel, and wipe out an entire tinfoil army, think what we could do with tumbleweeds stuffed in an abandoned well behind his father’s barn. Picture me drooling and nodding eagerly.
It took the rest of that Saturday for us to load our canon with tumbleweeds and cover it with rocks. We finally laid out a fuse of gunnysack strips soaked in coal oil and struck a match.
I’ll bet you’re wondering what happened when we lit the fuse. Well, I’ll tell you what happened. Nothing. In fact, Smooth and I waited in vain in a ditch behind his father’s barn, our fingers stuck in our ears. But when nothing blew up, we shrugged and went home for supper, planning another try in the morning.
I should mention here that the Heine farm was a half-mile from where I lived, but a little after midnight it sounded like it was in my bedroom. If you’ve ever stood at the end of an airport runway when the pilot of a 747 savagely pours the coal to his jet engines, you know the sound of our tumbleweed canon blasting into the night, albeit a bit tardy.
A geyser of flame lit up the countryside like a fiery Old Faithful, and while it lasted only a few thundering moments, dogs barked five miles away and chickens thought it was morning and started laying. One nearby farmer, Mr. Smelling, claimed his cows went dry because a comet flashed over his milking barn and smashed into a haystack.
In spite of all that, I still believe tumbleweeds have a marketable value as I watch them dance gaily across roads this time of year, clogging fences and radiators. At least you can always tell which way the wind’s blowing.
Bob Huber is a retired journalist.