By M.V. Moorhead
In the movies, the tumbleweed is an icon of the American West. There’s some irony in this—indeed, some currently topical irony—since botanists believe the tumbleweed is an invasive species, from Russia
(the plant is sometimes referred to as the Russian Thistle).
But on the silver screen, or on TV, or on the cover of a pulp paperback, the tumbleweed is as immediately evocative of Western atmosphere as the saguaro, the rattlesnake or the Gila monster.
And, like all of the above, the tumbleweed can be a nuisance in reality.
But in Chandler, around this time of year, the tumbleweed is a cheery harbinger of holiday spirit.
Not many annual traditions here in the Valley go back uninterrupted to 1957. But downtown Chandler’s Tumbleweed Tree debuted that year, and its latest edition is under construction now, in Dr. A.J. Chandler Park.
This centerpiece of the city’s holiday decorations consists of hundreds and hundreds of the dried out, seed-scattering desert plants, collected from area vacant lots, sprayed with flame retardant and then with white paint, dusted with glitter and finally sculpted into a 35-foot-tall Christmas-tree shape along a wire frame.
The festive result will be unveiled in its full glory at a lighting ceremony on the evening of Dec. 2. It will then remain on display until well after the New Year.
In charge of this daunting task is Chandler’s Park Maintenance Supervisor Mike Quihuis.
“I’ve been with the city 28 years,” he says, “and probably 20 of those years, I’ve done it.” Quihuis oversees more than 45 Chandler parks but admits,
“This is probably my biggest job of the year.”
The process starts with his crews collecting the tumbleweeds. “We usually look in south Chandler,” Quihuis explains.
“There’s a lot of empty fields out there, due to be developed. If they aren’t city property, we ask permission. And we clean up the lot, so people generally don’t mind.”
Once the weeds have been collected and made properly fire-safe, painted and glitzed-up, the crews set about arranging them on the wire frame into the conical shape of a tannenbaum.
It’s strung with some 1,200 lights and, of course, a star up top.
How did this start?
According the city of Chandler’s website, a city resident named Earle Barnum remembered seeing a similar decoration in his native Elkhart, Ind., constructed out of pine branches, and came up with the idea of a Southwestern variation using tumbleweeds.
Over the ensuing decades, the tree has grown, so to speak, into the town’s signature holiday custom.
Quihuis says he uses the construction method he was taught by his predecessor. “It usually stays the same,” he says. The only variation: “We’ve done it in different colors, but only on request. Last year the city officials wanted it silver.”
The lighting of the tree is slated for about 8 p.m. on that Dec. 2 opening night, and will be the high point of Chandler’s official kickoff to the holidays.
It will follow musical performances starting at 4:30 p.m. by Limelight Performing Arts, Learning Foundation
and Performing Arts—Warner Campus, The Dance Loft and Arizona Dance Studio, and a parade at 7.
There is no charge to attend; go to chandleraz.gov for details.