Tumbleweeds in Bloom


Tumbleweeds and I don’t get along. It all started when my daughter got bucked off her first bike and landed hands first in a pile of dried tumbleweeds. I lifted her from the prickly thicket and pulled dozens of tiny thorns out of her palms and fingers. Even after we got all the prickers out, their sting lingered. It was a long, tearful ride home. Since then, it’s been war between the species.

Later we moved to a place where tumbleweeds are the dominant plants. They form six-foot-high windrows against backyard fences. They lodge under cars in dense, impenetrable mats. They spread summer wildfires across miles of rangeland. I spent hours uprooting them; extricating them from flowerbeds; smashing their remains into trash cans; yanking them out of bushes at the end of a pitchfork … all the while, hating them with an irrational passion.

But last week I saw a side of these noxious weeds I’d missed. Walking along the edge of a parking lot in Central Oregon, I noticed a scattering of tumbleweeds glowing magenta in the filtered sunlight. I knelt to investigate. Their tangled purple stems sported tiny papery flowers in screaming shades of crimson and pink — each blossom no bigger than a lentil. This fragile beauty nestled in a den of nasty spikes, protected from adversaries like me. Because tumbleweeds are wind pollinated, they don’t need to create an inviting environment for pollinators. In fact, they seem to go out of their way to create uninviting environments for everything, including each other.

Which is why the brilliant jewel-toned flowers were all the more amazing. Why splurge on the frivolous party colors? I don’t know the botanical answer, but for me those blossoms are the counterpoint to the tumbleweed’s spikesthe yin and yang, chasing each other endlessly across the West’s wide open spaces.