This past spring, Austin residents Anna Uliassi and Arin Fullerton piled into a car along with their two dogs, Arlo and Iris, and hauled a trailer behind them. While driving toward Big Bend National Park, the two friends scoured the landscape, seeking out prickly desert flora to bring home with them—and, no, they aren’t cactus poachers. Along the two-hundred-mile stretch from Ozona to Marfa, Uliassi and Fullerton periodically pulled over onto the shoulder, hopping out to dart after tumbleweeds that had bunched together beside fence posts and in ditches. “We would start running after them and pulling them apart,” Uliassi says. “We had gloves and long sleeves, just trying to make sure we weren’t getting cut up, but we completely were. And we were just shoving them into the back of my Airstream, and then on to the next spot where we saw some.”
The pair returned to Central Texas a week later, the Airstream now brimming with dozens of thorny weeds. First, they dried out the plants on Fullerton’s screened-in patio, spritzing them with a fire retardant and a clear paint spray to give the tumbleweeds a light sheen. Then they carefully packed the weeds into boxes and shipped them out to customers or, in some cases, outfitted them with chic light bulbs and installed them in local restaurants and residential homes. Uliassi is not a lighting expert, nor is Fullerton; both learned how to hard-wire bulbs into brambles earlier this year before starting their side business Arlo + Iris, which sells “windswept tumbleweed lighting” on Facebook Marketplace and Etsy. Their tumbleweeds, which they advertise as being “sourced near Big Bend,” will set you back around $100 to $250 apiece, depending on size. “This is a conversation piece. They bring a natural element into spaces, and they create a sort of feeling of bringing the outside in,” Uliassi says. “At night, the shadows that they project onto the ceiling or the walls around them look really cool.”
Other tumbleweed vendors don’t travel nearly as far for their wares. Berto Adviento, a former military contractor who works in real estate and manages a barbecue franchise in El Paso, turns to his backyard or ventures into the nearby desert for tumbleweeds whenever he receives an order through his eBay page. Clutching long sticks that they use to spear the tumbleweeds, Adviento and his family harvest the plants together and sell them online to coastal city dwellers, prop managers for western films, high school theater directors, and owners of decor shops. The tumbleweed side business, which sees him shipping out an average of three a week, has some of Adviento’s neighbors scratching their heads. They see the plants as a nuisance, not a cash cow. “I’ve had a neighbor before offer me money, like, ‘Thanks for picking this up,’” Adviento says. “And I’m like, ‘Oh no, no, I don’t want your money. You don’t know what I’m doing with this tumbleweed.’”
A burgeoning market for tumbleweeds has cropped up on eBay, Etsy, Instagram, and Facebook in recent years, with sellers hawking the spindly weeds both with and without light bulbs (some tumbleweed chandeliers can go for as much as $3,000). In listings, tumbleweed chasers often note where they plucked these nettlesome plants, and frequently cite locales in the Chihuahuan Desert such as Terlingua and El Paso—or, more broadly, “the Wild West.” The phenomenon has even made its way to TikTok: Earlier this year, the Austin-based travel blogger @onegirlwandering was gobsmacked to see a woman in Marfa dash out of her Mini Cooper, throw a tumbleweed in her backseat, and drive away. “Now, I’m pretty sure this isn’t illegal, but it sure felt wrong,” she said in a viral video.
The commodification of Western iconography and dried decor, from pine cones to sagebrush, is nothing new. Now gathering tumbleweeds and marketing them as distinctly West Texas relics—never mind that the species is actually invasive—is becoming part of that. Countless bored people looking to enliven their spaces turned to home decor websites during pandemic lockdowns, which further catalyzed it into a growing trend. “Anything that’s free, there’s a profit margin,” says Emily Hammock Mosby, who started picking tumbleweeds near her home in Albuquerque last year and who has sold them as gifts, wedding decor, and, once, a statement piece for a “man cave.” “I don’t know if it’s botanicals as a trend, or Western, but there’s certainly a market for the humble tumbleweed,” Mosby says.
The “frontier memorabilia” industry existed long before humans could purchase tchotchkes with a click of a button, though. “For centuries, people have been cashing in on ‘genuine’ articles from the West, whether that be birchbark canoes, Native moccasins, buffalo bones, or grizzly bear claws,” says John William Nelson, an assistant professor of history at Texas Tech University. “It is just fascinating that tumbleweeds specifically have taken off as a commercial craze in the era of Etsy and home decor.”
As a familiar presence in the desert and High Plains, tumbleweeds crop up in Native art and folklore as well as western films. But they haven’t always been ubiquitous in West Texas; they aren’t even native to North America. The dried weeds made their way from Eastern Europe to the United States in a contaminated shipment of Russian flaxseed around 1873, as the University of Colorado’s Colorado Arts and Sciences magazine reports. After tumbleweeds mature, they break off from the ground; rolling long distances allows them to disperse their seeds widely. Given that a single tumbleweed contains about 2,500 seeds, the desiccated weed rapidly made its way around the United States in the late nineteenth century—by tumbling, through contaminating unsuspecting crops, and via the railroads’ continued expansion, notes PBS.
It’s unclear how the tumbleweed became specifically emblematic of the American West, but Nelson suspects that Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show played a large part. Cody, a former Army scout and showman in the late nineteenth century, famously brought live buffalo and the Deadwood stagecoach onstage in battle reenactments. Through these traveling performances, Cody regaled audiences on the East Coast and abroad with stories about life on the frontier. He also peddled inaccurate portrayals and perpetuated stereotypes about Native Americans and Mexican residents of the American West. While reviewing the promotional pamphlets that Cody distributed at his shows, which ran for thirty years starting in 1883, Nelson found one of the earliest descriptions—if not the earliest—of a tumbleweed as a distinctly Western symbol: “a tumbleweed before a high wind.” By the time biographers wrote about Cody’s life in the 1890s, “they’d worked tumbleweeds into those descriptions,” Nelson adds.
In the decades that followed, the rise of western movies cemented the tumbleweed trope. “Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show is basically the proto-western,” Nelson says. “When film comes along, those become the kind of scenes that morph into what we think of a western now.” (The desiccated plant even spawned an eponymous western that premiered in 1925.) He believes the tumbleweed had firmly entrenched itself as a symbol of the American West by the 1930s, in part because it played a vital role during the Great Depression. “Some of the Dust Bowl people that hang on in the Texas Panhandle credit tumbleweeds as getting their cows through the worst of it because everything else dies: the wheat dies, the corn dies. The grass dies,” Nelson says. “Tumbleweeds aren’t the best eating for a cow, but they’re better than nothing.”
Aside from being a last-ditch dining option, though, tumbleweeds bear few redeeming qualities in the wild. For decades farmers and scientists have tried, and failed, to eradicate various species of the pesky weed, which can threaten native ecosystems and even bury entire communities under its spindly embrace. The tumbleweed species most dominant around the High Plains, Kochia, has caused Texas farmers massive headaches since the 1940s. Livestock that eat it can go blind or even die, according to the Texas Farm Bureau. Specialists have attempted burning tumbleweeds en masse and poisoning them with herbicides, both to little avail, notes Muthukumar Bagavathiannan, an associate professor at Texas A&M University. The plants seem to have evolved to resist attempts to rein them in. “It’s like the antibiotic resistance we have in humans,” he says. What’s more, tumbleweeds continue to reproduce and evolve: one species recently spotted in California, Salsola ryanii, can even balloon up to six feet in height.
From this ecological standpoint, it may not be such a bad thing that tumbleweeds are getting plucked from the earth to be sold on web marketplaces: each is one less tumbleweed that farmers have to worry about, Bagavathiannan says. But tumbleweed sellers must take care not to inadvertently beget more tumbleweeds. “It’s good, in a way, that people are helping to minimize the weed,” he says. “But what we’re really worried about is: are you spreading the seed?” (He recommends placing tumbleweeds in trash bags and later shaking them and disposing of any seeds that fall out.)
It helps too that the last few years have also seen increased consumer demand for eco-friendly, natural, and recycled goods. Shoppers who typically scoured brick-and-mortar stores for home goods went online during COVID-19 lockdowns, and traffic to decor and furnishing retail sites surged in the spring of 2020, with 1.7 billion customers visiting worldwide in March 2020, compared with 1.56 billion in January. With the pandemic disruption in supply chains around the world, restlessness from being stuck at home, and a historic home improvement boom, it’s entirely possible that consumers saw an empty spot on the mantel and decided a tumbleweed might look handsome there.
Some Texans spent their newfound free time going out into the desert and chasing down the plants, or even learning how to make a tumbleweed chandelier at home. “So many lighting companies have been advertising that you could just take the little bulbs on a string, put them in a bottle, and use them on the patio,” says Nancy Kwallek, an interior design scholar and emeritus professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “And that might have just led to: ‘How can I make some money or survive with this natural product that is around the house?’”
The buying and selling of tumbleweeds has yet to become a truly booming industry—Uliassi and Fullerton are still trying to offload a few of the tumbleweeds they picked up back in the spring, Mosby uses her tumbleweed earnings to take her family out to dinner, and Adviento juggles tumbleweed sales with his other jobs. Still, tumbleweed vendors told Texas Monthly that they’re grateful for a flexible way to make a little money close to home, on their own terms. Adviento even sees a legacy within the brambles and thorns: He plans to grow the eBay tumbleweed business so he can eventually leave it to his son, who is eleven years old. “He just loves walking around outside finding stuff,” Adviento says. “So it should be perfect for him.”