Today’s photo comes courtesy of reader and sister Phoebe, who writes from California: “In a town covered in pavement, aka Redwood City, the origins of this 4 foot wide tumbleweed is a mystery.” We grew up in California, where tumbleweeds reputedly abound, but I encountered fictional tumbleweeds in books and cartoons long before I ever noticed one in real life. Since I had my nose buried in a book for much of my childhood, this was true of many plants – I wondered and imagined what they looked like, tried to reconcile what I eventually saw in real life to the plants in my head. Many did not grow in California, since older, classic books are set in cooler Eastern climates. Living in New England and Germany as an adult, where I finally saw birches and beeches and wild blueberries, I sometimes felt I was living in a fairy tale.
The tumbleweed is an exception: it was part of both the legendary and the physical landscape of my childhood. But the image of a tumbleweed as a visual cliché for the Wild West is still more real to me than the actual plant.
The word “tumbleweed” does not signify a particular species or whole plant, but any rolling, dried ball of plant matter that breaks off a plant, according to Wikipedia’s tumbleweed article. This comical object can come from any of several plant species. Many of the most common tumbleweeds in North America stem from members of the Amaranth family, but species from many other families can form tumbleweeds – even the florist’s standby, baby’s breath!
The point of the tumbleweed, in the evolutionary sense, is easy to deduce – it allows the plant to travel great distances, dispersing its seeds as it goes. But since its direction is decided by the wind, I guess this strategy can backfire, leading it into the urban jungle, where it seeds are scattered on cold pavement.
Searching the web for “urban tumbleweed,” I learned that this phrase is slang for a plastic bag blowing in the wind. It turns out that design agency in New York, MSLK, created an installation called 2663 Urban Tumbleweeds, based on the number of plastic bags consumed in the U.S. in 1 second.
They collected 2663 used bags from neighbords and wound them through the landscape as a visual comment on consumption and waste. The installation was originally proposed for Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens (proposal photo below) and realized at the 2008 Burning Man festival in Nevada.
Have any of you spotted urban tumbleweeds, plastic or organic?