Singing cowboy actor Gene Autry made a noxious week a romantic western image.
Gene Autry made them a romantic image of the Old West in his 1935 movie and hit song “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.” The first singing cowboy movie, it cost just $12,500 to make but grossed a reported $1 million, a big sum in the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Best known on the prairies, the weed can be seen tumbling across open spaces almost anywhere in North America, or across screens in countless movies and television shows. Also called Russian thistles, they arrived not from Russia but the Ukraine and they are not thistles. Salsola iberica, as it is properly known, is classed as a noxious weed that can spread rapidly as it is blown along; a single plant can produce up to 20,000 seeds. It causes, farmers have been warned, “serious production problems in crop, following harvest, and during summer fallow.” It can also spread a disease that is deadly to tomatoes, sugar plants and many other crops. It arrived in South Dakota about 1877, a stowaway in flax seed brought in by Ukrainian farmers.
“It attracted but little attention at first; but of late it has spread so rapidly that last year  it inflicted a loss of $4,000,000 on the farmers of the United States,” reports the Winnipeg Free Press, November 24, 1893. And now, the paper warns, “It will soon commence to invade the Canadian Northwest.”
“To get rid of this pest the farmers of the American Northwest are petitioning Congress to give the secretary of the department of agriculture power to take vigorous measures. They say a judicious expenditure of $2,000,000 would probably exterminate the thistle, and, as it did double that amount of damage last year, and if not checked, will do still more this [year], it would be money well spent.”
More than a century later, the tumbleweeds are still tumbling along and farmers have to fight to keep it under control. Almost as enduring as the weed has been the 1935 Autry movie. It is now available on DVD.