“Excuse me,” I say to the homeowner, who’s busy sawing boards in his garage while Nirvana plays on the stereo. “Do you mind if I pick some of your tumbleweeds?”
He looks at me kind of funny, as people do when asked this question – like maybe I’ve been out in the desert too long, maybe I’ve been eating the moonflowers—but says “Sure. Have as many as you want. In fact, come back tomorrow too if you want and pick more.”
I walk into the field next to his house. It’s a waste place of dry, cracked soil, a few broken beer bottles, some dead grass, some grasshoppers – a place not much good for anything. Except tumbleweeds. The toughest of plants. This place is a paradise for Salsola pestifera.
Salsola pestifera? That’s the scientific name for tumbleweed, also known as Russian thistle. It means salty pest. Salty, because like other members of the Goosefoot family (its cousins are spinach, beets, Swiss chard, greasewood, kochia, and lamb’s quarters), tumbleweed accumulates salts from the soil. Pest, because as any homeowner will tell you, tumbleweed wears out its welcome quicker than the guy who drinks all your beer and then makes your couch his new residence.
Tumbleweed, originally a plant of the Siberian steppes, was introduced accidentally by Ukrainian immigrants into South Dakota in the 1800s. It was a stowaway in a shipment of flax seed. Since then, it has tumbled its way across the West and has become as much a fixture of our landscape as the wild horse and the cowboy hat. Its ingenious method of propagation is that, when the plant dies and dries up, its single stem easily breaks off and the tumbleweed blows across the prairie, scattering seeds all along the way and eventually coming to rest in a pile with forty of its closest friends along your fence line.
Like many other invasive species (plants or animals from faraway lands that wreak havoc on native ecosystems because they have no natural predators), tumbleweed is considered a noxious weed. Homeowners spend hours pulling young plants from their driveways and removing the dead plants from their fences with pitchforks. The Bureau of Land Management spends millions of tax dollars poisoning it along roadsides. What can we, as foragers, do to control the spread of the salty pest?
Well, I have a plan and I’m doing my part, one bite at a time. In less time than it takes to navigate the produce section of City Market and wait in line at the register, I’ve filled a shopping bag with soft, tender tops of young tumbleweeds, enough vegetables for several days. You have to pick the tender young ones, because as they mature, tumbleweeds become prickly and mean. Tumbleweeds are excellent steamed or stir-fried. They are an excellent source of vitamins and minerals, and, as long as you don’t gather where the BLM has been spraying, they are completely organic. Even homeowners who hate the plant invariably tell me their opinion of tumbleweed has changed once they try my Tumbleweed-Oatmeal Stir-fry (Weird? Wait till you try it).
Tumbleweed is said to be an especially high source of calcium. It is also high in protein. The (over)abundance of tumbleweed, combined with its high nutrient profile, combined with its good taste and the ease at which it may be gathered makes it among the top useful edible plants of this region, in my opinion. One thing to note: if the stems of tumbleweed (or other members of the Chenopodiaceae family such as lamb’s quarters) are red, that means it has been accumulating nitrates from the soil. Look for dark green.
So perhaps it’s time to revise our opinion of the despised tumbleweed and of weeds in general. Instead of that can of Roundup, why not grab a shopping bag, fill it with tasty tumbleweed tops, and cook yourself a free meal?
Here’s a recipe for Tumbleweed-Oatmeal Stir-fry to get you started: tender green tumbleweed tops, oatmeal, onions and olive oil. Chop up onions and stir-fry with oil. Add tumbleweed, then oatmeal and enough water to hydrate. Cook until tumbleweed is tender. Serve with sea salt.
Julia Lupine is a Moab-based desert rat, artist, wild plant enthusiast, writer, and traveler.