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Salsola kali L.

Russian thistle, Prickly saltwort, Tumbleweed, Glasswort

Source: James A. Duke. 1983. Handbook of Energy Crops. unpublished.

  1. Uses
  2. Folk Medicine
  3. Chemistry
  4. Toxicity
  5. Description
  6. Germplasm
  7. Distribution
  8. Ecology
  9. Cultivation
  10. Harvesting
  11. Yields and Economics
  12. Energy
  13. Biotic Factors
  14. References


Young plants serve as useful fodder, as long as they are not too high in nitrites or oxalic acids. As a low-water-use plant, germinating quickly on minimally disturbed soils, and relatively free of diseases and parasites, this has been suggested as a fuel source for arid lands (Foster et al., 1980). This is one of several plants burned to make soap, even in Biblical times, at least so we read in WSSA. Soap made in this fashion is still traded at Joppa and other Mediterranean ports [WSSA Newsletter 9(4): 12. 1981]. On account of its high alkali content, the plant has also been used in making glass (Watt and Breyer-Brandwijk, 1962). Salsolin has been used to regulate the blood pressure, said to resemble papaverine in its effect on vasoconstriction, hydrastine in its effect on the smooth muscles of the uterus (List and Horhammer, 1969–1979).

Folk Medicine

According to Hartwell (1967–1971), the plants are used in folk remedies for that cancerous condition he terms superfluous flesh. Reported to be cathartic, diuretic, emmenagogue, poisonous, stimulant, and vermifuge, Russian thistle is a folk remedy for dropsy and excrescences (Duke and Wain, 1981). Navaho used a decoction of the ashes, both internally and externally for influenza and smallpox (Duke, 1983c).


Of 21 samples, the average DM content was 39.4% (20.0–80.2). On a Zero Moisture Basis (ZMB), CP, ran 4.9–25.0% (mean of 31 = 12.3), EE 0.6–3.8 (mean of 23 = 1.8), CF 20.2–43.1% (mean of 21 = 31.7), ash, 5.4–22.8% (mean of 30 = 15.2), and the NFE averaged 39.0%. Ca ranged from 1.6–4.14 (mean of 48 = 2.47%), P from 0.04–0.27 (mean of 48 = 0.17%), K from 4.63–6.83% (mean of 6 = 6.46%), Mg from 0.60–0.93 (mean of 17 = 0.81%), with ca 19 mg/kg Cu, 33 mg/kg Mn, 0–8 mg/kg carotene (Miller, 1958). Seeds contain 40.5% protein, 27.0% fat, on a ZMB (Duke and Atchley, 1983). Fruiting plants may contain 0.2% alkaloids, among them salsolidine and salsoline. Hager's Handbuch reports the fatty oils from the plant contain linolenic-, oleic-, arachidic-, palmitic-, and stearic-acids, along with glucose, arabinose, fructose, and rhamnose, with eicosanol and b-sitosterol. The ash contains ca 20% K, 18% Ca, 3% Mg, 1.5% Al, 1.5% Fe, 6% phosphate, 6% sulfate, 40% carbonate, and 2% chloride (List and Horhammer, 1969–1979).


The plant can contain as much as 5% oxalic acid. This oxalic acid, or excess of KNO3 may lie behind reports of toxicity to grazing animals.


Annual herb with spreading taproot; stems bushy, much-branched, 1.5–12 dm tall, 3–15 dm in diameter, rigid, spiny, spherical, often reddish in age, young stems and leaves green and succulent; leaves alternate, the first-formed fleshy, cylindrical or awl-shaped, 0.5 mm broad, 1.2–6.5 cm long, apically pointed, the latter-formed shorter, stiff, dilated and thickened at the base, ending in a hard sharp spine. Flowers small, greenish, mostly solitary in the axils; petals none; sepals 5, papery and persistent; stamens 5; pistil 1, bracts at the base of each flower 2, rigid, spine-tipped; fruit surrounded by the 5 enlarged sepals, each developing a fan-shaped, strongly veined wing on its back, 3–9 mm broad. Seeds numerous (to one million per plant), top-shaped, ca 2 mm broad, with a yellowish coiled embryo, visible through the thin gray wall (Reed, 1970).


Reported from several arid Mediterranean Centers of Diversity, Russian thistle, or cvs thereof, is reported to tolerate drought, grazing, heat, and poor soils. I predict it will also tolerate salinity and high pH, as do so many desert xerophytes. (2n = 36)


Disturbed areas, roadsides, ditchbanks, fallow abandoned grain-fields, overgrazed ranges, and pastures. Common to abundant in Western and parts of the Central States of the US, occasional along the eastern and southern coasts, where it is spreading rapidly (Reed, 1970). Treated as a serious weed in Afghanistan and Argentina, a principal weed in Canada and Hungary, a common weed in Iran, Italy, Morocco, South Africa, and the United States. Listed also as weed in Australia, Chile, China, Egypt, Greece, Hawaii, Indonesia, Iran, Japan, Lebanon, Mexico, Norway, New Zealand, Pakistan, Poland, Turkey, and the USSR (Holm et al., 1977).


Estimated to range from Cool Temperate Desert to Steppe to Subtropical Very Dry to Thorn Forest Life Zones, Russian thistle is reported to tolerate annual precipitation of 2.6 to 9.7 dm (mean of 4 cases = 4.9), annual temperature of 9.2 to 23.8°C (mean of 4 cases = 15.3), and pH of 7.0 to 7.9 (mean of 2 cases = 7.4) (Duke, 1978, 1979).


A self seeding annual, producing up to a million seed a plant, the Russian thistle doesn't really need to be cultivated, except perhaps as a desert fuel candidate.


Spread of the weed is encouraged by the long-viable seed. Harvesting of the tumbleweed and processing it for fuel is treated in various papers by Karpiscak and/or Foster.

Yields and Economics

Productivity of natural stands in Avra Valley, ca 32 km northwest of Tucson, averages more than 3 MT/ha. Hence this weed has been suggested as desert fuel crop for 240,000 ha of arid or fallow land retired as the cost of irrigation increases (Foster, Rawles, and Karpiscak, 1980). With its C4 photophysiology, it has a high water use efficiency. Currently, this is an economic negative. Tumbleweeds block irrigation canals. They are a traffic hazard which cost the California transportation department hundreds of thousands of dollars to eliminate (Anon., 1982a). It costs about $250 a hectare to haul away the brush, while application of an herbicide (e.g. Brominal) costs closer to $100.


According to the phytomass files (Duke, 1981b), annual productivity ranges around 3 MT/ha but yields of ca 6–10 MT/ha forage are reported for Salsola orientalis (with Eurotia and Kochia) in Kazakhstan (USSR) (Pryanishikov and Alimaev, 1977. Proc. 13th Internat. Grassland Cong. Leipzig) [CAB V81(10)]. In dry regimes, Salsola kali has higher biomass in mixed than in monoculture (Allen, 1982). Karpiscak et al (1980) report on the feasibility of agricultural production as a source of burnable biomass. Foster et al. (1980) discuss the processing into artificial fireplace logs whose economic potential is substantial. Energy content in field-dried tumbleweed ranges from 6,500–6,800 Btu/lb cf 5,580–7,920 for lignite. Wild stands yield 3–10 MT/ha; irrigated plots up to 15 MT/ha. The value of the fireplace logs made from compressed tumbleweed is $14 to $20 per million Btu. It costs $4.33–6.40 to prepare the product (Foster et al, 1983). The most common means of eradication is by burning, which only perpetuates the problem by releasing up to 1,000,000 fire-resistant seeds per plant (Anon., 1982a).

Biotic Factors

Agriculture Handbook No. 165 lists the following as affecting this species: Melanospora townei (on stems), Phymatotrichum omnivorum (root rot), Pleospora lecanora (on stems), Puccinia aristidae (rust), Pyrenophora salsolae (on stems), Pythium deparyanum (root rot), and curly top virus Ruga verrucosans. Golden (p.c. 1984) lists the "false root-knot" nematode, Nacobbus aberrans.


Complete list of references for Duke, Handbook of Energy Crops
Last update Friday, January 9, 1998 by aw