Salsola kali L.
Russian thistle, Prickly saltwort, Tumbleweed, Glasswort
Source: James A. Duke. 1983. Handbook of Energy Crops. unpublished.
- Folk Medicine
- Yields and Economics
- Biotic Factors
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
According to Hartwell (19671971), 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% (20.080.2). On a Zero
Moisture Basis (ZMB), CP, ran 4.925.0% (mean of 31 = 12.3), EE 0.63.8 (mean
of 23 = 1.8), CF 20.243.1% (mean of 21 = 31.7), ash, 5.422.8% (mean of 30 =
15.2), and the NFE averaged 39.0%. Ca ranged from 1.64.14 (mean of 48 =
2.47%), P from 0.040.27 (mean of 48 = 0.17%), K from 4.636.83% (mean of 6 =
6.46%), Mg from 0.600.93 (mean of 17 = 0.81%), with ca 19 mg/kg Cu, 33 mg/kg
Mn, 08 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
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, 1.512 dm tall,
315 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, 1.26.5 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, 39 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
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
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
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 610 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
6,5006,800 Btu/lb cf 5,5807,920 for lignite. Wild stands yield 310 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 $4.336.40 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).
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
- Allen, E.B. 1982. Water and Nutrient competition between Salsola kali
and two native grass species (Agropyron smithii and Bouteloua
gracilis). Ecology 63(3):732741.
- Anon. 1982a. Here's how to control those tumbleweeds before they blow out of
control. Agricultural Age (Jan. 1982:10H).
- Duke, J.A. 1978. The quest for tolerant germplasm. p. 161. In: ASA Special
Symposium 32, Crop tolerance to suboptimal land conditions. Am. Soc. Agron.
- Duke, J.A. 1979. Ecosystematic data on economic plants. Quart. J. Crude Drug
- Duke, J.A. 1981b. The gene revolution. Paper 1. p. 89150. In: Office of
Technology Assessment, Background papers for innovative biological technologies
for lesser developed countries. USGPO. Washington.
- Duke, J.A. 1983c. Amerindian medicinal plants. Typescript.
- Duke, J.A. and Atchley, A.A. 1984. Proximate analysis. In: Christie, B.R.
(ed.), The handbook of plant science in agriculture. CRC Press, Inc., Boca
- Duke, J.A. and Wain, K.K. 1981. Medicinal plants of the world. Computer index
with more than 85,000 entries. 3 vols.
- Foster, K.E., Karpiscak, M.M., Taylor, J.C., and Wright, N.G. 1983. Guayule,
jojoba, buffalo gourd, and russian thistle: plant characteristics, products and
commercilization potential. Desert Plants 5(3):113117, 126.
- Foster, K.E., Rawles, R.L., and Karpiscak, M.M. 1980. Biomass potential in
Arizona. Desert Plants 2(3):197200.
- Hartwell, J.L. 19671971. Plants used against cancer. A survey. Lloydia 3034.
- Holm, L.G., Plunknett, D.L., Pancho, J.V., and Herberger, J.P. 1977. The
world's worst weeds. Univ. Press of Hawaii. Honolulu.
- Karpiscak, M.M., Rawles, R.L., and Foster, K.E. 1980. The feasibility of using
Salsola kali L. (Russian thistle) as a renewable energy resource.
Arizona-Nevada Acad. Sci. J. 15:(abstr.) Proceedings Supplement.
- Karpiscak, M.M., Rawles, R.L., Foster, K.E., Meinel, A.B., and Meinel, M.P.
1980. The feasibility of using Russian thistle Salsola kali L. for
bioconversion. Fifth Quartly Report. Univ. of Arizona, Tucson, Office of Arid
- List, P.H. and Horhammer, L. 19691979. Hager's handbuch der pharmazeutischen
praxis. vols 26. Springer-Verlag, Berlin.
- Miller, D.F. 1958. Composition of cereal grains and forages. National Academy
of Sciences, National Research Council, Washington, DC. Publ. 585.
- Reed, C.F. 1970. Selected weeds of the United States. Ag. Handbook 366. USDA,
- Watt, J.M. and Breyer-Brandwijk, M.G. 1962. The medicinal and poisonous plants
of southern and eastern Africa. 2nd ed. E.&S. Livingstone, Ltd., Edinburgh
Last update Friday, January 9, 1998 by aw