The Iconic Prairie Tumbleweed: From Russia? Really?

Yes, the tumbleweed is a Russian native that took over in the great prairies of the west. Why, out in West Texas, they grow as big as two stories tall. I accidentally learned about this immigrant plant while researching the Dust Bowl story and found an account of Russian thistle soup, which was popular in the Dust Bowl era. 

Yes, the tumbleweed came across the ocean with Russian immigrants. Some Russian immigrants moved to the town of Scotland in Bon Homme County, South Dakota, in the early 1870s. It is widely thought that these Russian thistle seeds traveled to the U.S. along with the immigrants in their shipments of flax seeds.

By 1873, U.S. botanists identified it as Salsola kali (SAL-so-la KAH-lee), of which Salsola was the genus of the tumbleweed, and kali is the species. The botanists considered it the most reliable to eat. By 1895, the humble tumbleweed had trekked across the U.S. from New Jersey to California and Canada to Mexico. The United States Department of Agriculture received its first letter referring to the tumbleweed in October 1880 from the county of Bon Homme, South Dakota.

Professor Lyster Hoxie Dewey, who worked for the US Department of Agriculture, wrote two reports in 1893 and 1894 that the tumbleweed was spreading via trains and wind. Professor Dewey’s theory was that the railroad and the wind could turn this new weed into a severe problem. He recommended that the railroads get rid of the plant wherever they found it. His recommendation went unheeded. It was a tad bit too late by then.

Looking back to that time, it was hard work for a botanist traveling on horseback to identify a weed and how it spread all over Illinois. Professor Dewey documented Salsola along railroad tracks and noted specific locations in Illinois. He recognized the potential problem with tumbleweeds, but back then, it had not yet become such an obnoxious plant that farmers and agriculturists see it as today.

Professor Dewey’s publications focused mostly on bulletins for the USDA on the production of fibre from flax, hemp, sisal, manila plants, on the classification and origin of the varieties of cotton, and his studies on grasses and troublesome weeds. The tumbleweed quickly took over open land with up to 200,000 seeds per plant via the trains and the wind.

The tumbleweed invaded not only the U.S. It quickly spread worldwide. Salsola kali and its relatives are found in Afghanistan, Argentina, Canada, Chile, China, Egypt, Greece, Hawaii, Hungary, Indonesia, Iran, Italy, Japan, Lebanon, Mexico, Morocco, Norway, New Zealand, Pakistan, Poland, South Africa, Turkey, and Western Siberia, and came from the Ural region of Russia.

The Ural region comprises the Ural Mountain range, or the Urals, in west-central Russia and forms a physiographic boundary between Europe and Asia. This range extends for approximately 1,550 miles in a north to south arc. The Urals date to about 250 million years ago. The rivers flowing down from the Urals drain into either the Arctic Ocean or the Caspian Sea.

The Hollywood movies epitomized the tumbleweed as symbols of barren expanses of windy prairies, desolate lands, and the American cowboy. Tumbleweeds are nomadic, romantic, and a little rough around the edges. The tumbleweed became an icon of American Western culture and country music lyrics. Back in the late 1800s, we called the tumbleweed a Russian thistle.

Russian Thistle Soup and Soap

If your Tumbleweed is a Salsola but not the kali, you will need to verify its edibility with a local expert. Botany researchers note that related species in the desert southwest of the U.S. are edible. Botanists cannot decide if there is one species of Salsola (the kali) and a lot of varieties of that one species, or if there are several species of Salsola.

Folks used the young tumbleweed shoots to make soup with it wherever it grew throughout its history. In Biblical times, people used tumbleweed to make soap, and this soap is still sold around the Mediterranean Basin region. People have been making use of tumbleweeds for centuries. The Ural’s climate, like much of the prairie and the Cross Timbers region of Texomaland, falls into the extremes of hot and cold.

The tumbleweed can contain as much as 5% oxalic acid, and some people are sensitive to oxalic acid and should avoid experimenting with it as far as eating it goes. It can also be a severe allergen for some people. Eating tumbleweeds as young shoots is highly recommended, or the shape of its leaves will irritate throats.

What irritates farmers is that the tumbleweed is a host plant of the sugar beet leafhopper, which carries the curly-top virus, a disease that negatively affects bean, tomato, and sugar beet production. Some farmers in the late 19th century thought tumbleweeds were sent as a conspiracy to destroy their land and crops.

Tumbleweeds prefer an environment in the U.S. like sandy areas, seashores, some desert environments, salty areas, beside northern roads because of the salt, or western roads because of open space, and railroad tracks.

However, frontier farmers began using the young shoots to feed cattle, frontier families used tumbleweeds for making soap, and the Navahos used them for medicinal purposes to treat smallpox and influenza. Eating the tumbleweed was necessitated by the lack of other food resources.

No doubt that the people who suffered through the Dust Bowl heard about Russian thistle soup from their elders. Young shoots and tips of the growing plant are edible raw and interesting enough, reportedly quite tasty. There is a renewed interest among prepper types in reviving the old Russian thistle culinary tradition of the frontier with resources easily available on the internet.

Pioneers, and later the Dust Bowl era folks, made soup with tumbleweeds and also steamed them like collard greens, spinach, or turnip greens. The modern reviewers say that steamed tumbleweeds taste a lot like steamed spinach. Pick them when they are brand new shoots.

Cut the young shoots from the main stem. To steam them, first wash them real good to get the sand or dirt out of them, just like greens. Then steam them for a few minutes, and add butter and salt. Steamed tumbleweeds freeze well. People add different ingredients to their tumbleweed soup using chicken broth, like rice, garlic, artichokes, bay leaves, and onions. Bon Appetite!

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