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Basic Information

A Tumbleweed is a cute little plant, delightfully iconic, as it bounces harmlessly along in a scenic and picturesque fashion that lets you know that you are in The Old West or at least a Western. Wrong. Let's start again…

The tumbleweed (also known as Russian Thistle) is an invasive species from Russia that has, over the span of the past 200 years, become the absolute scourge of many communities and locations all across the United States. It has spread from coast to coast, and even down in to Mexico and up in to Canada.

It's a self-pollinating allergy-triggering mass of painful thorns. It steals nourishment out of the land, choking out native species and agricultural crops alike. On windy days, it blows along in huge "herds" that block traffic, spreading seed all the way so as to ensure the problem will show up again in a few more seasons. It piles up in spiky bramble stacks that require back-breaking labor to clear.

It's also highly flammable. Wildfires produce their own wind by heating up the air, which can then send tumbleweed fireballs blasting across the landscape, spreading the conflagration over firebreaks that would have contained the blaze had tumbleweeds not been present.

The US Department of Agriculture spends a lot of energy trying to keep the tumbleweed under control. After the end, as post-apocalyptic decay sets in, the tumble will likely swallow up any part of post-America that doesn't fall to kudzu first.

It should also be noted that the cute tumbly parts, aside from being painfully pointy, are also dead. When the plant goes to seed, it proceeds to starve itself to a dry death. The extreme dryness of the dead branches is why it's so light-weight and burnable.

Over the years there have been multiple reports of freak conditions where tens of thousands of tumbleweeds buried entire towns, and required equipment and crews to dig out escape routes from the houses and eventually clear out the fire hazard.


Game and Story Use

  • A few tumbleweeds in The Old West are cute and scenic, kinda charming. Good set-dressing or terrain option for your game if you're in The Western genre.
    • Also a good counterpoint to the rootless nature of a lot of Western protagonists.
  • A whole mess of tumbleweeds may be a major threat to a farming community. For a touch of bleak realism in the background of your scenes, the determined homesteader or rancher may be out with a pitchfork scooping weedy brambles, for fear that they:
    • ruin the soil before the crops can be harvested
    • hurt the horses and livestock with thorns that break off in the hide and fester
    • cause a small brushfire to turn into a mighty disaster
    • bury the entire town under spiky vegetation, trapping everyone in their homes
  • Presumably this is why the tumbleweeds traditionally blow down a deserted street in Western movies - given that they're such a nuisance, if there was anyone about they would have dealt with them already.
  • May make a good improvised weapon, natural barricade, or be part of a booby trap. Roll them downhill at the enemy camp (lit afire or not). Pile them up in places where the enemy would like to advance and they'll be a poor-man's caltrop.
  • If you've got your eye on the long game, you might even scatter their seeds as a slow-acting multi-year scorched-earth policy. Slow-but-inevitable ecoterrorism, sent from Russia with love. For more ideas, see USDA Identifies Some Mysterious Unsolicited Seeds.
  • Tumbleweeds are practically the undead zombie horde of the plant kingdom. So that might be a fun angle to take in a fantasy game.
    • A multiclass necromancer/druid might have a fortress surrounded by these things, or unleash them on innocent farmers.
    • Perhaps if the magic tumbleweed drops its seeds on a freshly-slaughtered corpse, it will rise from the dead with thorny vines growing all over it and providing armour or bonus grappling damage.
  • Could serve as inspiration for a r-path mobile plant alien in a speculative fiction setting. Perhaps they drift from world to world via panspermia, and out-compete the local wildlife because of their bizarre alien biology.
    • Or maybe they're more of astrochicken / Von Neumann probe kind of thing, accidentally or intentionally unleashed by some precursor civilization that failed to out-compete its own invention.
    • Or a terraforming device like the red weed from War of the Worlds.
  • There is also the "urban tumbleweed" - a discarded plastic carrier bag blowing past on the wind. Roughly as good for the local environment and somewhat less picturesque.
  • Fantasy tumbleweeds might appear as the vanguard of the spread of evil influence as "not Mordor" spreads into greener lands.
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