Tumblin’ tumbleweeds

We’ve been getting these cute little tumbleweeds around here lately:

That’s a 12-inch ruler for scale. It took a while for me to identify this plant but it has to be Panicum capillare also known as witchgrass.

The part of the plant you see is the inflorescence, that is, the flower head, and this type of inflorescence is called a panicle. If you like goofy words, you should check out botany.

Here’s a bit from the entry in Munz & Keck’s A California Flora, p. 1546:

. . . papillose-hispid to subglabrous . . . attentuate at tip, subsessile along the ultimate branchlets . . .

Botany books go on like this for days. You need a specialized glossary to make sense of the stuff—a little book to de-code the big book!

What made this one tough is that the dry panicles become tumbleweeds and they float around on the lightest of breezes and attach themselves to other plants. I finally had to pull some of the bunchgrass out by its roots before I could be sure which inflorescence went along with which plant.

There are places in the world, mostly deserts, where the tumbleweeds can be so bad that cars and houses get buried after a windstorm. Out in the dry valleys east of here there are several species of plants that dry up at the end of the summer and turn into tumbleweeds and become a potential nuisance. Here in town the open fields are small and broken up by neighborhoods with their cultivated lawns and gardens. There’s not much chance of a tumbleweed problem. As you can see the witchgrass tumbleweed made by Panicum capillare is a light and delicate thing, and absent of thorns or sharp edges.

Of course, any talk of tumbleweeds leads naturally to The Sons of the Pioneers:

See them tumblin’ down

Pledging their love to the ground!

Lonely but free I’ll be found

Drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds

Songwriter: Bob Nolan

Stay safe out there on the trail, pardner!

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