Salsola kali is found in all 48 contiguous states (USDA, 2013). Salsola kali, Russian thistle, tumbleweed or saltwort, is an annual weed that grows in salty soil and needs very little water (Colas et al., 2006: 810). The plant stands <1 m in height with spiked branches coming out (Colas et al., 2006: 810).
Salsola section Kali complex is represented by S. lax, S. paulsenii, S. collina, S. kali spp. austroafricana, and S. tragus (Ayres et al., 2009: 1182). In California, a new allopolyploid (having complete sets of chromosomes from different species) species, named Type C (2n = 54), resulted from a form a hybrid formation between S. tragus (2n = 36) and S. kali ssp. austroafricana (2n = 18) (Ayres et al., 2009: 2009: 1182). Type C was collected from the Central Valley, California (Ayres et al., 2009: 2009: 1182)
Salsola kali invaded USA in 1873 in South Dakota (Goeden & Pemberton, 1995: 276). The plant is originally from South Russia and Western Siberia (Goeden & Pemberton, 1995: 276). Loss to wheat farmers in 1894 was estimated at two million dollars (Bainbridge, 1996: 276). Given the negative impact on agriculture, researchers are investigating biologica control agents for this weed. For example, Coleophora parthenica (Lepidoptera) and C. klimeschiella were for the most part ineffective in reducing populations (Goeden & Pemberton, 1995: 276). In addition, the pathogenic effect of fungus Colletotrichum gloeosporioides was tested on S. tragus and S. kali ssp. austroafricana (Bruckart et al., 2004: 307). Infection and biomass reduction was significant at temperatures 25 °C and 30 °C with a minimum dep period of 12-16 h, but effects differed between the two species (Bruckart et al., 2004: 306-7).
For those people with pollen sensitization of Salsola kali, respiratory disease may result (Colas et al., 2006: 810). In Zaragoza, Spain, sensitized patients were tested with extracts of freeze-dried S kali (0.001-1 mg extract per mL). Patients exposed to Chenopodiacea with an altered S. kali extract is successful immunotherapy treatment in reducing symptoms and also has seen an improvement in life quality (Colas et al., 2006: 814).
Ayres, D., Ryan, F.J., Grotkopp, E., Bailey, J. & Gaskin J. 2009. Tumbleweed (Salsola, section Kali) species and speciation in California. Biological Invasions 2: 1175-1187.
Colas C., Monzon C., Venturini, M., & Lezaun, A. 2006. Double-blind, placebo-controlled study with a modified therapeutic vaccine of Salsola kali (Russian thistle) administered through use of a cluster schedule. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology 117: 810-816.
Bainbridge, D. 1996. The tumbleweed centennial in the Antelope Valley. California. California Exotic Pest Plant Council, Symposium Proceedings: 5 pp.
Bruckart, W., Cavin, C., Vajna, L., Schwarczinger, I., & Ryan, F.J. 2004. Differential susceptibility of Russian thistle accessions to Colletotrichum gloeosporioides. Biological Control 30: 306-311.
Colas C., Monzon C., Venturini M., & Lezaun A. 2006. Double-blind, placebo-controlled study with a modified therapeutic vaccine ofSalsola kali (Russian thistle) administered through use of a cluster schedule. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology 117: 810-816.
Goeden, R. D., & Pemberton, R.W. 1995. 73/Russian Thistle. Biological Control in the Western United States: Accomplishments & Benefits of Regional Research Project W-84, 1964-1989 3361: 276.
USDA Forest Service. 2013. Russian thistle, available at: http://www.na.fs.fed.us/fhp/invasive_plants/weeds/russian-thistle.pdf ; accessed on Feb 18, 2013.
Native to Eurasia, Russian-thistle is distributed throughout most arid
and semiarid regions of the world. In North America Russian thistle
occurs from British Columbia east to Labrador and south through the
conterminous United States to northern Mexico [18,34]. It is most
common in central and western regions of Canada and the United States,
and along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Limited southern and eastern
inland populations occur along waste areas and railroad tracks .
Russian-thistle is adventitious in Hawaii .
Regional Distribution in the Western United States
This species can be found in the following regions of the western United States (according to the Bureau of Land Management classification of Physiographic Regions of the western United States):
1 Northern Pacific Border
2 Cascade Mountains
3 Southern Pacific Border
4 Sierra Mountains
5 Columbia Plateau
6 Upper Basin and Range
7 Lower Basin and Range
8 Northern Rocky Mountains
9 Middle Rocky Mountains
10 Wyoming Basin
11 Southern Rocky Mountains
12 Colorado Plateau
13 Rocky Mountain Piedmont
14 Great Plains
15 Black Hills Uplift
16 Upper Missouri Basin and Broken Lands
Occurrence in North America
ID IL IN IA KS KY LA ME MD MA
MI MN MS MO MT NE NV NJ NM NY
NC ND OH OK OR PA RI SC SD TN
TX UT VT VA WA WV WI WY AB BC
LB MB NF ON PQ SK MEXICO
Distribution in Egypt
Nile region, Mediterranean region and Sinai.
Northern Hemisphere, especially shorelines.
[2,6,34]. It is highly branched and rounded in form, growing from 1 to
3 feet (0.3-1 m) in height and from 1 to 5 feet (0.3-1.5 m) in diameter.
The awl-shaped, spiny-tipped leaves bear small, inconspicuous flowers in
the leaf axils. The small, winged seed, retained in the leaf axils
until after plant death, contains no endosperm tissue, but is instead
comprised of a spirally-coiled, complete embryo  already containing
some chlorophyll . The root system consists of a taproot, reaching
0.3 foot (1 m) or more in depth, and extensive lateral roots. Under
crowded conditions, roots are shallow .
Depth range (m): 1 - 1
Note: this information has not been validated. Check this *note*. Your feedback is most welcome.
Russian-thistle grows in disturbed or unoccupied sites at elevations
from below sea level (in Death Valley, California) to 8,550 feet (2,600
m) . It grows in any type of well-drained, uncompacted soil with a
sunny exposure [55,61]. It is most frequent, however, in alkaline or
saline soils due to reduced competition. Russian-thistle cannot
tolerate saturated soil for extended periods of time .
Habitat: Cover Types
This species is known to occur in association with the following cover types (as classified by the Society of American Foresters):
More info for the term: cover
Common in many SAF Cover Types
Habitat: Plant Associations
This species is known to occur in association with the following plant community types (as classified by Küchler 1964):
Common in many Kuchler Plant Associations
This species is known to occur in the following ecosystem types (as named by the U.S. Forest Service in their Forest and Range Ecosystem [FRES] Type classification):
More info for the term: shrub
FRES10 White - red - jack pine
FRES11 Spruce - fir
FRES12 Longleaf - slash pine
FRES13 Loblolly - shortleaf pine
FRES14 Oak - pine
FRES15 Oak - hickory
FRES16 Oak - gum - cypress
FRES17 Elm - ash - cottonwood
FRES18 Maple - beech - birch
FRES19 Aspen - birch
FRES21 Ponderosa pine
FRES22 Western white pine
FRES23 Fir - spruce
FRES24 Hemlock - Sitka spruce
FRES26 Lodgepole pine
FRES28 Western hardwoods
FRES30 Desert shrub
FRES32 Texas savanna
FRES33 Southwestern shrubsteppe
FRES34 Chaparral - mountain shrub
FRES35 Pinyon - juniper
FRES36 Mountain grasslands
FRES37 Mountain meadows
FRES38 Plains grasslands
FRES40 Desert grasslands
FRES42 Annual grasslands
Key Plant Community Associations
seabeaches and in disturbed grassland and desert communities, with the
largest populations occurring in semiarid regions [50,61]. Pure stands
occur in southern Nevada between elevations of 4,000 and 6,000 feet
(1,219-1829 m) . A published classification listing Russian-thistle
as dominant is:
Valley grassland 
Russian-thistle associates are too numerous to list due to its
Depth range (m): 1 - 1
Note: this information has not been validated. Check this *note*. Your feedback is most welcome.
Fire Management Considerations
buildings creates a fire hazard. Tumbling, ignited plants can spread
fire, and may bounce across fire lines .
Prescribed burning will not control Russian-thistle, since it colonizes
from off-site and thrives in disturbed communities.
Initial-offsite colonizer (off-site, initial community)
Secondary colonizer - off-site seed
Fire ecology: Russian-thistle aids in spreading fire. It burns easily
because the stems are spaced in an arrangement that allows for maximum
air circulation . Also, dead plants contribute to fuel load by
retaining their original shape for some time before decomposing .
The rolling action of the plant spreads prairie wildfire quickly.
Fire adaptations: Russian-thistle colonizes a burn when off-site,
abscised plants blow across it, spreading seed .
More info for the term: succession
Obligate Intitial Community Species
Russian-thistle is a shade-intolerant initial colonizer in primary and
secondary succession. It colonizes barren desert areas that cannot
support other flora , and invades many different disturbed plant
communities . In disturbed big sagebrush communities,
Russian-thistle dominates for the first 2 years. After this time plants
become overcrowded and stunted  and are often replaced by mustards
(Descurainia and Sisymbrium spp.) .
Russian-thistle is a highly effective reproducer. After seeds mature in
late fall the plant stem separates from the root . The plant is
then blown by wind. Seeds, held in the leaf axils, fall to the ground
as the plant tumbles . Further dispersal is accomplished when wind
scatters the winged seeds. The seed wings may aid in seed germination
by absorbing soil moisture. One plant typically produces about 250,000
seeds, which remain viable for less than a year . Fresh seed will
germinate at a very limited range of alternating day/night seedbed
temperatures: 68/41 degrees Fahrenheit (20/5 deg C) . Over winter,
temperature restrictions disappear. In spring, Russian thistle seeds
will germinate at virtually any conceivable seedbed temperature,
including alternating day/night temperatures of 122/29 degrees
Fahrenheit (50/-2 deg C) . In tests conducted in a big sagebrush
community in Nevada, Evans and Young  noted the following
germination percentages at various nighttime minimum temperatures:
Temperature (deg C) Germination (%)
At optimum temperatures (44 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit [7-10 deg C]),
germination is accomplished within minutes . This extremely short
germination time aids in establishment in desert environments.
Germination is epigeal or hypogeal . The spirally-coiled embryo
unwinds and pushes the root into the soil. Embryos do not survive if
they germinate on compacted soil, or at a soil depth of greater then 5
inches (13 cm) . Russian-thistle seedlings are poor competitors,
and do not establish well in crowded communities .
Growth Form (according to Raunkiær Life-form classification)
Plant Response to Fire
a big sagebrush community in Idaho at postfire year 2, contributing 58
percent of the total community biomass . On the Mesa Verde Plateau
of Colorado, it codominated a burned area with Bigelow aster
(Machaeranthera bigelovii) at postfire year 3 . Once dominant,
Russian-thistle retains dominance for an average of 1 more year. At
postfire year 3 or 4, populations decline until further disturbance
Immediate Effect of Fire
literature. Fire presumably kills Russian-thistle and kills at least
some of the seed retained in leaf axils.
Life History and Behavior
The following seasonal development has been reported for
germinates: late April - August 
flowers: June - August [31,34,61]
seeds mature: August - November [42,61]
plant dies: first fall frost [10,31]
seeds disseminate: late fall [10,61]
Evolution and Systematics
Intertwining and interconnected branches of Russian thistle tumbleweeds provide structural support through trussing.
"The tumbleweed is a complex growth of branches with wildly irregular, sometimes temporary triangulation-like, connections on the inside of the plant, creating massive interlocking structural relationships that are held together by barbs (they hook together like Velcro). In the form of a ball, the hooked branches make an extremely strong, structural truss-like sphere that rolls along fields distributing its seed—the form and structure are part of an evolutionary function of propagation." (Dollens 2005:10-11)
Learn more about this functional adaptation.
- Dollens, D. 2005. Toward biomimetic architecture. Lecture at University of Florida.
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Salsola kali
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Salsola kali
Public Records: 11
Specimens with Barcodes: 19
Species With Barcodes: 1
National NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded National Status Rank: NNA - Not Applicable
Rounded National Status Rank: NNA - Not Applicable
NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded Global Status Rank: GNR - Not Yet Ranked
develop mouth ulcerations from eating dry Russian-thistle. The
ulcerations usually persist for 2 to 3 weeks. Additionally, rain- or
snow-softened Russian-thistle often has a laxative effect upon
livestock, which may harm already weakened animals [15,53].
Livestock ranges that have deteriorated from drought or overgrazing are
frequently invaded and dominated by Russian-thistle [41,52].
Agricultural: Russian-thistle competes with crop plants for space,
water, and nutrients . In Washington, Russian-thistle ranked
seventh in importance when compared to other crop weeds based upon
hectares infested . Russian-thistle is the primary host for the
beet leafhopper (Circulifera tenellus) that vectors the curly-top virus
of sugar beets, tomatoes, and curcubits (Cucurbita spp.) [18,53].
Russian-thistle shows promise as a hay crop in semiarid regions. When
irrigated and fertilized, Russian-thistle grown on a New Mexican site
produced 73 percent as much total dry weight matter per annum per
hectacre as alfalfa, and contained 65 percent as much protein, while
requiring only half as much water .
Other: Russian-thistle is often considered a troublesome weed because
it obstructs roadways and stream channels, buries fence lines, and
causes fire hazards .
Control: Burrill and others  reported that either 2,4-D or
bromoxynil used in combination with dicamba was 80 to 94 percent
effective in controlling Russian-thistle, and metribuzin used in
combination with chlorsulfuron gave 95 to 100 percent control. Young
and Whitesides  reported only 12 percent control of Russian-thistle
Insects from the genera Celeophora, Microlarinus, and Trichosirocalus
are being tested as biological contol agents of Russian-thistle. Insect
populations of these genera have established in California, but
preliminary results suggest that of the three genera, only
Trichosirocalus is able to establish in cold climates. Trichosirocalus
horridis has been successfully introduced in Canada for Russian-thistle
control . To date, there are no data regarding the effectiveness of
these insects as contol agents.
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Value for rehabilitation of disturbed sites
Russian-thistle is beneficial when rehabilitating disturbed sites. It
is frequently an unwanted weed on such sites, but disturbed sites often
recover more quickly when Russian-thistle is left on-site because its
presence accelerates the rate of revegetation [2,18, 29]. If topsoil
remains on the site, Russian-thistle roots are readily invaded by
mychorrhizal fungi harbored in the soil . Russian-thistle does not
form mychorrhizal associations, and fungal invasion results in the death
of the infected root. The fungi consequently invade other
Russian-thistle roots. Russian-thistle populations decline, but
mycorrizal fungus populations increase and subsequently invade the
mycorrhizal association-forming species which comprise the next stage of
plant succession. These species usually flourish as a consequence of
increased mychorrhizal fungus populations . Dead Russian-thistle
plants provide microshading for other establishing plant species .
If topsoil is gone, however, Russian-thistle can dominate disturbed
sites for up to 10 years. Such sites benefit more from the addition of
topsoil than the removal of Russian-thistle .
Dry Russian-thistle foliage has been used as an inexpensive mulch on
replanted coal mine spoils in Arizona .
Russian-thistle provides hiding cover for small mammals, songbirds,
upland game birds, and waterfowl . Seven percent of sage grouse in
a southeastern Idaho big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) community used
Russian-thistle for nesting cover .
The degree to which Russian-thistle provides environmental protection
to wildlife has been rated as follows :
MT ND UT WY
Pronghorn ---- good poor poor
Elk ---- ---- poor poor
Mule deer ---- good poor poor
White-tailed deer ---- good ---- poor
Small mammals fair ---- fair fair
Small nongame birds fair ---- fair fair
Upland game birds ---- good fair fair
Waterfowl good ---- poor poor
The nutritional value of Russian-thistle varies by season. In spring
Russian-thistle provides fair nutrition for livestock and wildlife. The
nutritional value of fresh, immature Russian-thistle leaves and stems
was as follows :
Composition (%) Digestible Protein (%)
ash 12.0 cattle 8.5
crude fiber 12.4 goats 8.6
protein 11.5 horses 8.3
The nutritional value of winter forage, after the plant has dried, is
higher. It is a good source of vitamin A and phosphorus. Dry
Russian-thistle from a western Utah rangeland had the following
nutiritional value for sheep :
digestible protein (%) 12.4
digestible energy (cal/lb) 997
ash (%) 22.8
calcium (%) 2.47
phosphorus (%) 0.22
carotene (mg/lb) 4.1
Russian-thistle contains small amounts of oxalate that are probably not
harmful to livestock .
Weanling mice showed favorable growth responses when fed a diet of
Russian-thistle seed meal. The nutritional value of Russian thistle
seed meal from Saskatchewan, Canada was as follows :
protein (%) 49.9
ash (%) 7.4
fiber (%) 10.4
oxalate (%) 2.2
Other uses and values
silage. Russian-thistle hay is credited with saving the beef cattle
industry in Canada and the United States during the Dust Bowl era, when
conventional hay crops failed and no other feed was available for
starving animals [18,61].
Russian-thistle is sometimes used for Christmas decoration .
Importance to Livestock and Wildlife
than 10%) in bison, mule deer, and elk diets [18,45,51,53]. It is an
important prairie dog food , and pronghorn show high preference
for the summer growth in years of high precipitation .
Russian-thistle seeds are eaten by at least eight species of granivorous
birds, including scaled and Gambel's quail [5,18,20]. Small mammals
also consume the seeds .
sheep and cattle from early spring until flowering, at which time sharp
spines form, and again during winter when spines are softened by
moisture . Foliage is palatable to pronghorn in summer and fall,
and is palatable year-round in wet years. Pronghorn find it low in
palatability in dry years and in spring .
The palatability of Russian-thistle for livestock and wildlife species
is rated as follows :
CO MT ND UT WY
Cattle fair fair fair fair fair
Sheep fair good good good fair
Horses fair poor fair poor fair
Pronghorn ---- ---- ---- poor poor
Elk ---- ---- ---- good good
Mule deer ---- ---- ---- good good
White-tailed deer ---- ---- ---- ---- good
Small mammals ---- ---- ---- fair good
Small nongame birds ---- ---- ---- fair fair
Upland game birds ---- ---- ---- fair good
Waterfowl ---- ---- ---- poor poor
Names and Taxonomy
Comments: Has also been called Salsola australis and Salsola ibirica; treated by Kartesz (1994 checklist) as a single species under the name Salsola kali. LEM 6Dec94. The common 'tumbleweed' of the American West, where exotic.
Salsola iberica Sennen & Pau [28,58]
Salsola pestifer A. Nels 
Salsola tragus L. 
literature. Salsola kali L. is most widely used [7,37,39,43,47,50], and
will be used in this write-up. There are three varieties of S. kali in
North America, with varietal differences based upon degree of pubescence
of stems  and size of leaves and fruits . Recognized varieties
are as follows [25,36,50]:
S. k. var. caroliniana (Walter) Nutt.
S. k. var. tenuifolia G. F. Meyer
S. k. var. kali
S. kali hybridizes with S. paulsenii (barbwire Russian-thistle) , and
may hybridize with S. collina (no common name in current use) .
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