Weed of the Week: Russian Thistle

We are going to start doing a invasive species series on the blog called “Weed of the Week”. It may come out less than weekly but “Weed of the Week” sounds a lot better than “Weed of about every once a month or so”.


Tumbleweed or Russian Thistle(Salsola tragus) is going to kick off the series. If you have visited Cottonwood Canyon State park, Central or Eastern Oregon, the Western United States, any state other than Florida, or watched a western film, then odds are you have seen tumbleweed.

Usually when folks think of tumbleweeds they picture the rural west and spaghetti westerns might come to mind. You can probably picture one tumbling down a dirt road right now. They are not a native plant however and they are considered a weed.

Russian Thistle is native to Eurasia and is believed to have come to the United States via contaminated flax seed brought by Russian immigrants in the 1870’s. After landing in South Dakota it spread quickly across the United States and Canada and soon became synonymous with the wild west.

Russian thistle is a bushy summer annual that can grow upwards of 5 feet in diameter. It thrives in disturbed soil, so along roadways, freshly plowed areas, and new construction it can quickly become established. As the name tumbleweed suggests, these plants at maturity break off from their taproot and can tumble across the landscape dropping seeds as they go. A large plant can produce as many as 200,000 seeds. Russian thistles are highly drought resistant and need very little rainfall in order to germinate, this often gives them a headstart against desirable plants.

Control Methods

*These control methods are not exhaustive and are for information only

Mechanical- Pulling or hoeing Russian thistle can be highly effective especially in small infestations. The earlier the plant is removed from the ground the better, but as long as the plant hasn’t gone to seed, pulling is effective. Remember each plant pulled can stop 200,000 seeds in the future.

Cultural- Livestock will eat young plants, but not once they get larger. Planting competing species in a managed landscape may work well.

Russian Thistle Seedling
Phil Westra, Colorado State University, Bugwood.org

Biological- A leaf mining moth and stem boring moth have been released as biocontrol agents, but control has been poor.

Chemical Control- There are many chemicals out there that will control Russian thistle. Most broadleaf selective herbicides work well such as 2,4-D or Dicamba. With 2,4-D the key to effectiveness is usually to apply early when the plants are young and rapidly growing for greater control. Glyphosate will control Russian thistle but it is not a selective herbicide, so care where applying especially around desirable plants is very important. With any chemical control it is always important to read and follow the label and to make sure you have the proper training and licensing to apply herbicides.

Usually a variety of control methods is best and having and sticking to an Integrated Pest Management Plan (IPM) is highly beneficial in the long run.

For a more exhaustive list on control methods and for more information on Russian Thistle Click Here.

If you have suggestions for future article, questions about Russian Thistle, weeds, or Cottonwood Canyon in general feel free to comment or email me at Asa.Miller@oregon.gov

Russian Thistle close up

I tried searching for a good poem about Tumbleweeds but all that I came up with were poems that were mostly romanticizing the weed. So I decided to write my own and now you are stuck with it.


Tumbleweeds are to the West
As Hank is to a song
You think that you know best?
Then let me prove you wrong

Tumbleweeds came to the US from Flax
They came to the midwest from Russia
Tumbleweeds are the cowboy’s tax
To rid them we’ll need a militia

There is some hope in our vision
We will stick to our IPM
We may even resort to ignition
which always makes us grin

Soon they won’t roll down the road
we’ll remove them from our sight
Finally gone from our workload
We might get some sleep tonight

Works Cited
Weed Control in Natural Areas in the Western United States
University of California

University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources


9 thoughts on “Weed of the Week: Russian Thistle

  1. Hi there. Like the post on Russian thistle. Thanks. Perhaps a bit more information about deleterious effects on beneficial flora and fauna in the future? As for a request/suggestion, I would like to nominate my personal least favorite roadside scourge: puncture weed. Cheat grass and Medusa head also on the list, and star thistle. But I’m more curious about puncture weed. Thanks for all your hard work! We love Cottonwood Canyon! Cheers, Scott Bowler

    On Sun, Jan 26, 2020 at 11:30 AM Cottonwood Canyon State Park wrote:

    > rangerasa posted: ” We are going to start doing a invasive species series > on the blog called “Weed of the Week”. It may come out less than weekly but > “Weed of the Week” sounds a lot better than “Weed of about every once a > month or so”. Tumbleweed Tumbleweed o” >

    1. Thank you for the comment and the suggestions, we really appreciate it. Russian thistle provides multiple problems at Cottonwood Canyon. As mentioned it is highly drought resistant and the seeds can sprout with the smallest amount of water. This gives them a head start and can quickly out compete our desired plants. Another concern, especially at Cottonwood/this region, is fire danger. Tumbleweeds can pile up along fences or natural obstructions in the landscape and can pose a very serious fire risk. As for puncturevine, it will definitely be making an appearance on the blog.

  2. The poetry was terrific, much more so than the nasty weed. We are acquainted with the bad guys…tumble, medusa, puncture……trifecta of nuisance. Any pulling parties coming up or is the weather still too iffy? Thanks as always for the information on our favorite place.

    1. Thanks for the comments, we don’t have any pulling parties planned just yet. But we always appreciate volunteers coming and helping out, especially once the weeds start coming in fast in the spring and early summer. Keep an eye on the blog and if we get something organized we will try and let folks know.

  3. oh, one more thing I forgot to ask about is the datura outside the old barn. Gorgeous when in bloom but is it as dangerous as some people think?

  4. Who knew that such beauty and wit could be inspired by these dreadful noxious weeds. Thanks for the silver lining, Asa! The Cottonwood rangers are hard working and good humored, my favorite combination!

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