Weed Guide > Russian Thistle

Russian Thistle

DSC 1985

Scientific Name:Salsola kali (also Salsola tragus and Salsola iberica)

Family: Chenopodiaceae (Goosefoot Family)

Other common names: tumbleweed, prickly Russian thistle

Life-Cycle: Annual; spreads only from seed

Description Bloom
(varies by elevation)
What to Do When? Invades Undisturbed Land State Class
Slender, fleshy seedlings; red-striped stems; becomes 2-3 ft tall, prickly and woody then breaks off as a tumbleweed. Small, petal-less bloom of white or pink occurs up the length of the stem at each spiny leaf in July & August. Hand pull or hoe seedlings; cultivate soil; plant competing vegetation. June through August. Typically no. Needs loose, disturbed soil to germinate; is most common along roads, trails and driveways. None.
Russian thistle young1

General Description

  • Russian thistle is least noticed when it is young - slender, green and soft - and most noticed when it's a large, spiny, brown tumbleweed.
  • Flexible, almost succulent, green (or sometimes pink) stems have red/purple vertical stripes, and are multi-branched to the point ofbecoming a bushy bramble as plant grows.
  • Fine, long leaves that look like soft pine needles are reduced to short, prickly spines as the plant ages over the summer.
  • Tiny flowers are basically unnoticeable without close inspection, but they are attached directly to the stem, white to pink and relatively attractive.
  • Russian thistle does not like firm, well-irrigated soil (around your house); look for broken chunks of dried Russian thistle along roads, driveways and trails.
Russian thistle mature1


  • An annual, each plant dies every year and new plants grow from seed.
  • Germinates between late April and August; flowers late June through August; goes to seed August to November; dies after the first fall frost and breaks at the base of the stem now through the following spring to spread seed as a tumbleweed.
  • Seeds need loose soil and are not viable for more than a year or so (meaning, you can beat this weed!).

Prevention & Control


  • Detect and eradicate new plants early; look for last year's tumbleweeds as a clue.
  • Do not drive vehicles and machinery through areas with old tumbleweeds.
  • Screen irrigation water before it enters a field or your irrigation pipes.

Hand Pull

  • Hand-pulling or hoeing is the best and easiest method for small or sporadic patches as the roots are shallow and the plant grows from seed (not roots).
  • Seeds germinate throughout the spring and summer so check your property often.

Mowing, Grazing Cultivation and Biocontrols

  • Mowing or otherwise destroying young plants prevents seed production.
  • Planting competitive desirable species, such as tall grass or shrubs can effectively shade out sunlight and suppress weed seedlings.
  • Grazing works well for young plants.
  • Several potential biocontrols are under investigation but none exist now.

See the whole “Toolbox of Weed Control Methods” for more details.

      Interesting Tidbits

      • Russian thistle is the primary host for the beet leafhopper (Circulifera tenellus) that carries the "curly-top virus" of sugar beets, tomatoes, squashes, melons and cucumbers.
      • Russian thistle tumbleweeds present a serious fire hazard.