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End of the Road for the Tumbleweed?

(KRTS File Photo)

You’re driving on the interstate on a windy West Texas day and all of a sudden out of the corner of your eye, you see something barreling across the road.  Before you can react, it hits your car.  You’ve just met the tumbling tumbleweed.

It’s an iconic image, and some believe tumbleweeds originated in the West, but they didn’t. They’re actually invaders from Russia, and are called Russian Thistle.

It's considered a pest by farmers and landowners. According to Midland Naturalist Burr Williams, tumbleweeds are a plant that only grows where the soil is disturbed one way or the other.

Justin Bush, the Invasive Species Coordinator for the TexasInvasives O R G partnership, says that Russian Thistle is displacing our native species and causing economic damage by harming our crops because it takes a lot of water to grow.

Last January, Clovis New Mexico made national news when the town became buried in tumbleweeds after a windstorm. It took the city weeks to dig out. And it’s no wonder, Scientists have found that a single mature tumbleweed plant can yield more than three million seeds.

Plant Pathologist Dr. Dana Berner and his team at the US Department of Agriculture scientists have found a remedy for this pest that's been plaguing the Plains for over a century.

"Colletotrichum salsolae, we’ve tested it extensively in both Greece and Russian and it’s an excellent biological control fungus." says Berner.  "When we released it in 3 sites in Greece, it took one to two seasons to eliminate it and these sites were 100 percent infested with Russian Thistle."

Berner also adds that the fungi pathogen has not been found to be harmful to plant species similar to the Tumbleweed.

Approval for the trial tests for Dr. Berner’s fungi remedy may take up to two years, and then tests will be conducted only on two approved sites, one in Colorado the other in California.

After that, the USDA will be reaching out to property owners across the U.S. to help test their plan against the pesky tumbleweed.

- Lana Straub

Lana Straub is a freelance journalist living in the middle of West Texas, She is a native West Texan, growing up in Midland/Odessa and currently lives in Stanton with her husband and son. Get to know Lana at http://about.me/lana.straub