In January, while the West made national news with extreme cold weather caused by the polar vortex, the Southwest experienced another phenomenon. It was the morning of Jan. 27 when strong winds hit the town of Clovis, breaking off dry tumbleweeds from the fields. In a matter of hours, thousands of weeds covered houses and businesses, many up to the roof. It took heavy machinery to help people out of their own houses.
“It took about two days to clean up the mess,” said Abdel Mesbah, superintendent of the New Mexico State University Agricultural Science Center at Clovis, who will focus his future research on controlling weeds. “In the western part of town, the weeds blocked doors and windows. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Mesbah believes the reason there were so many kochia, Russian thistle and possibly London rocket weeds blowing across town was because several growers in the area did not clean their fields the previous year.
There could be multiple effects of having dry weeds ranging from fire danger, property damage, road hazards to the economic impact of cleaning residential areas and simply the natural occurrence of weeds spreading seeds as they tumble, leaving thousands of seedlings to become weeds the following year.
“They could spread 200,000 to half a million seeds, depending on the size of the plant,” said Jill Schroeder, NMSU professor of weed science.
Mesbah added that it could be possible that next year will have even more tumbleweeds since so many spread their seeds this year.
“Growers might have a hard time next year trying to get rid of them or see more of them,” he said. “That’s why it is important to clean the fields every year.”
He added this could have been prevented by cleaning the fields using herbicides or chopping the weeds when they first appeared.
“The invasion is largely due to their tolerance to grow in some pretty nasty conditions,” said Brian Schutte, NMSU professor of weed physiology. “They do well in dry, alkaline soil. Exactly the type we have here in our area.”
Schutte explained that weeds are annual plants and emerge in the spring, completing their life cycle during the summer.
“So by fall, the plants are drying. They will dry to the point where the wind will break them off at the soil surface and carry them across the land,” Schutte said.
“Research has shown that it hardly takes any rainfall for the seeds to germinate in the spring. They just need a hint of moisture to begin growing, but once they start to grow they take our precious water,” Schroeder said, noting that other useful or necessary plants or crops have to compete for water.
Weeds will usually grow near train tracks, waste areas, near fields, along the canals and sometimes in backyards.
The three professors said the spectacle of a tumbleweed invasion was incredible, unlike anything they have ever seen.
A month after the tumbleweed invasion, fences and fields next to the highway were still covered in weeds. On the way to Clovis, as soon as the railroad track appeared and the wind picked up a little, tumbleweeds rolled across the highway one after the other for miles.
So, it is possible that another tumbleweed invasion of that magnitude happen due to the dispersed seeds from this year?
The professors agree it could be possible and they urge people to clean up their backyards and farmers and growers to clean their fields as soon as they see signs of the invasive plants.