You can learn more about CuriosityStream at https://curiositystream.com/deeplook .
The silent star of classic Westerns is a plant on a mission. It starts out green and full of life. It even grows flowers. But to reproduce effectively it needs to turn into a rolling brown skeleton.
SUBSCRIBE to Deep Look! http://goo.gl/8NwXqt
DEEP LOOK: a new ultra-HD (4K) short video series created by KQED San Francisco and presented by PBS Digital Studios. See the unseen at the very edge of our visible world. Get a new perspective on our place in the universe and meet extraordinary new friends. Explore big scientific mysteries by going incredibly small.
Tumbleweeds might be the iconic props of classic Westerns. But in real life, they’re not only a noxious weed, but one that moves around. Pushed by gusts of wind, they can overwhelm entire neighborhoods, as happened recently in Victorville, California, or become a threat for drivers and an expensive nuisance for farmers.
“They tumble across highways and can cause accidents,” said Mike Pitcairn, who tracks tumbleweeds at the California Department of Food and Agriculture in Sacramento. “They pile up against fences and homes.”
And tumbleweeds aren’t even originally from the West.
Genetic tests have shown that California’s most common tumbleweed, known as Russian thistle, likely came from Ukraine, said retired plant population biologist Debra Ayres, who studied tumbleweeds at the University of California, Davis.
A U.S. Department of Agriculture employee, L. H. Dewey, wrote in 1893 that Russian thistle had arrived in the U.S. through South Dakota in flaxseed imported from Europe in the 1870s.
“It has been known in Russia many years,” Dewey wrote, “and has quite as bad a reputation in the wheat regions there as it has in the Dakotas.” This is where the name Russian thistle originates, said Ayres, although tumbleweeds aren’t thistles.
The weed spread quickly through the United States — on rail cars, through contamination of agricultural seeds and by tumbling.
“They tumble to disperse the seeds,” said Ayres, “and thereby reduce competition.”
A rolling tumbleweed spreads out tens of thousands of seeds so that they all get plenty of sunlight and space.
Tumbleweeds grow well in barren places like vacant lots or the side of the road, where they can tumble unobstructed and there’s no grass, which their seedlings can’t compete with.
--- Where does a tumbleweed come from?
Tumbleweeds start out attached to the soil. Seedlings, which look like blades of grass, sprout at the end of winter. By summer, Russian thistle plants take on their round shape and grow flowers. Inside each flower, a fruit with a seed develops.
Other plants attract animals with tasty fruits, and get them to carry away their seeds and disperse them when they poop.
Tumbleweeds developed a different evolutionary strategy. Starting in late fall, they dry out and die, their seeds nestled between prickly leaves. Gusts of wind easily break dead tumbleweeds from their roots and they roll away, spreading their seeds as they go.
--- How big do tumbleweeds grow?
Mike Pitcairn, of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, said that in the state’s San Joaquin Valley they can grow to be more than 6 feet tall.
--- Are tumbleweeds dangerous?
Yes. They can cause traffic accidents or be a fire hazard if they pile up near buildings.
---+ Read the entire article on KQED Science:
---+ For more information on the history and biology of Russian thistle, here’s a paper by Debra Ayres and colleagues:
---+ More great Deep Look episodes:
How Ticks Dig In With a Mouth Full of Hooks
This Giant Plant Looks Like Raw Meat and Smells Like Dead Rat
Upside-Down Catfish Doesn't Care What You Think
---+ See some great videos and documentaries from the PBS Digital Studios!
Above the Noise: Why Is Vaping So Popular?
Hot Mess: What Happened to Nuclear Power?
---+ Follow KQED Science:
KQED Science: http://www.kqed.org/science
---+ About KQED
KQED, an NPR and PBS affiliate in San Francisco, CA, serves Northern California and beyond with a public-supported alternative to commercial TV, radio and web media.
Funding for Deep Look is provided in part by PBS Digital Studios. Deep Look is a project of KQED Science, which is supported by the Templeton Religion Trust and the Templeton World Charity Foundation, the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, the Dirk and Charlene Kabcenell Foundation, the Vadasz Family Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Fuhs Family Foundation Fund and the members of KQED.