November 5, 2013 Updated: November 5, 2013 at 3:31 pm
If you have seen tumbleweeds sailing across the roads, you know: Tumbleweed season is underway.
Thanks to the rains that drenched the area in July and August, expect "a bumper crop" of tumbleweeds this year, says Sharon Pattee, a rancher in Fountain and a member of El Paso County's Forestry and Weed Advisory Commission.
Tumbleweeds come from a number of plants and occur when the plant matures, dries out, breaks free of its roots and takes a wind-fueled journey across the ground, dispersing its seeds along the way. In El Paso County, the two chief culprits are Russian thistle and kochia, Pattee says. The Colorado State University Extension labels them both as "troublesome annual weeds of rangeland, pastures, fields, disturbed areas, gardens, roadsides, ditch banks and small acreages."
Both are non-native species. Russian thistle originated in, yep, Russia, and is believed to have come to the United States in the late 1800s through contaminated flax seed. Kochia is from Asia.
Though generally considered a nuisance, both weeds do have some uses. Kochia provides foliage for deer and pronghorn, for example, while songbirds and some game birds eat its seeds. Livestock might eat Russian thistle until it gets older and spikier, Pattee says. CSU Extension warns that Russian thistle can accumulate levels of nitrates that could be toxic to cattle and sheep; kochia has similar dangers.
Kochia has served as human food, at least in desperate times, Pattee says.
"Back in the Dust Bowl age, it was one of the few plants that was prevalent, at least for a while. And people were so destitute that they would boil it, salt it and eat it."
Some craft-minded people use tumbleweeds; I stumbled across "How to Make a Tumbleweed Christmas Tree" online. I also found a company, Curious Country Creations.com, that sells "natural tumbleweed seeds."
"Take these seeds and plant in your garden or window box and see the magic happen as your own tumbleweeds will begin to grow and take shape," the company advertises.
On my property, the "magic" of tumbleweeds is how they leap over fences and somehow stuff themselves under the stairs on the south side of our house. When they stop at a fence instead of sailing over, they can be a big problem, Pattee says.
"They'll back up against a fence and, after time, they can be 4, 5, 6 feet deep. And that's a lot of weight when the wind starts blowing and pushing on that fence."
With tumbleweeds being so dry, they also pose a fire hazard, Pattee says. I've burned tumbleweeds (in controlled situations, I hasten to add) and can confirm they burn in an instant.
Mowing your weeds is one way to cut down the tumbleweed population, Pattee says, but timing is key.
"Mowing the plant before it gets to the point of having mature seed is ideal," she says. With a relatively small acreage, like our 5 acres, she recommends mowing a couple of times during the summer.
"Of course, you can get into chemical treatment," she says, "but a lot of people don't want to do that."
And because of the traveling nature of tumbleweeds, control measures won't necessarily keep your property tumbleweed-free.
"I manage my place pretty well, so I'm not contributing, I hope, to that problem," Pattee says. "But other peoples' tumbleweeds blow, of course, into my property."
Bill Radford and his wife live in the countryside east of Colorado Springs with a menagerie that includes one horse, one mule, two goats, two dogs, two cats, a half-dozen chickens, two rabbits, two guinea pigs and two parrots. Contact him: Twitter @billradfordiii, gazettebillradford on Facebook. Follow his blog at blogs.gazette.com/