Celebrating Christmas in Arizona? Each year the Chandler tumbleweed Christmas tree adds a bit of desert style to holiday celebrations in the Phoenix area.
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Arizona holiday style at Chandler’s tumbleweed Christmas tree
What could be more western than tumbleweeds? (Well, they actually are a non-native invasive species, but more on that later.) Every Western movie ever made seems to include a few of these iconic plants. So, if you want to celebrate Christmas in the west, shouldn’t it include a tumbleweed or two?
The good folks of Chandler, Arizona, thought so. That’s why they collect the ubiquitous local tumbleweeds to create a truly unique desert Christmas tree.
Chandler’s tumbleweed Christmas tree tradition goes back to 1957.
Local lore claims a snowbird wanted to create a version of a pine bough tree he’d seen in the north. With few pine boughs to be found in the desert around Chandler, readily available tumbleweeds were used instead – and a tradition was born.
Today, Chandler’s odd Christmas tree is popular with locals and visitors alike.
Building a tumbleweed Christmas tree
While Chandler’s tumbleweed trees have taken various forms over the years, modern trees are built on a large frame with the tumbleweeds attached to the outside. It appears to be quite a process, but it provides a more evenly shaped tree than earlier versions that lacked a sturdy frame.
It takes a lot of tumbleweeds to build a Christmas tree. Over 1,200 are collected, although not all of those will make it into the Christmas tree.
City park staff in Chandler start collecting tumbleweeds from vacant lots around the city in October.
But not just any tumbleweed will do. For the Christmas tree, tumbleweeds must be nicely rounded, about three feet in diameter, and freshly cut. (Those nasty balls you see rolling down the road aren’t good enough for a Christmas tree!) Once harvested, the tumbleweeds are sorted by size and stored until it’s time to assemble the tree.
Today’s tumbleweed Christmas tree is built on a 25 foot tall frame. This year it appears the city is using a sturdier frame than some in the past. It also appears that the frame was covered with tumbleweeds from the top down, instead of from the bottom up as in the past. In either case, attaching the tumbleweeds in a way that creates a nice, even shape looks like quite a challenge.
Once the tumbleweeds are attached, the whole thing is sprayed with fire retardant and white paint and then sprinkled with glitter. Once dry, the Chandler tumbleweed tree is strung with more than 1000 lights. Of course, a star sits at the very top.
The city of Chandler has a 2015 video that shows that year’s tree being constructed.
In case you want to build a copy of the Chandler tumbleweed tree for your own yard, here’s a list of what you’ll need:
- 25 foot tall metal frame
- 450 feet of chicken wire
- 600-1000 nicely rounded tumbleweeds (collect extra for a nicely shaped tree)
- 20 gallons of fire retardant
- 25 gallons white paint
- 65 pounds of glitter
- 1,200 holiday lights
- 1 star
You’ll need to find your own source of tumbleweeds. Chandler’s becoming so fully developed that it’s a bit of a challenge these days to find enough for their own tree, let alone for yours!
A few tumbleweed facts
So if you aren’t from the west and don’t watch a lot of old Western movies, you might be wondering “so what is a tumbleweed anyway?”
Tumblweeds start as rounded green plants. A young tumbleweed plant is actually rather pretty, with tiny green leaves, red-streaked stems, and many small flowers.
But after the plant blooms, it begins to dry out. Eventually the dry plant will break away from the root and begin rolling across the landscape distributing seeds as it moves. And, as each tumbleweed is said to produce about 250,000 seeds, it scatters a lot of seeds.
Because they grow easily in disturbed, dry soil, tumbleweeds have long been a regular feature of the American West. Indeed, they are so linked to the western frontier that nearly every western movie ever produced seems to feature at least one scene of a tumbleweed rolling across the landscape. There’s even a western song about the Tumbling Tumbleweeds.
Ironically, this icon of the Old West is an invasive import from Russia, as is reflected in its common name, Russian thistle. Scientists think the first tumbleweed seeds arrived in grain brought to South Dakota in the 1870s, spreading south and west from there. A noxious weed wherever it is found, Russian thistle (Salsola tragus) isn’t just a plant of the American West anymore either. These days a form of this horribly invasive plant can be found in almost every state. You may even find enough growing near you for your own tumbleweed Christmas tree!
Visiting the Chandler tumbleweed tree
Chandler’s tumbleweed Christmas tree seems to be lit the first weekend in December. However, that may vary from year-to-year, so be sure to check the city website for the latest information.
The tumbleweed Christmas tree is expected to be on display in downtown Chandler, Arizona, through the beginning of the new year. In 2019 it was scheduled to be on display until January 7th. I can’t find a date for this year. While it’s on display, it’s lit each evening.
Getting to Chandler’s tumbleweed Christmas tree
Chandler is part of the Phoenix metropolitan area in central Arizona. The city is southeast of downtown Phoenix and directly south of Tempe and Mesa. It’s about a half-hour drive from Phoenix, depending on traffic conditions.
The tumbleweed Christmas tree is located right in Chandler’s historic downtown at A J Chandler Park. This is roughly in the center of the city, north of the 202 (the Santan Freeway) and just south of Chandler Boulevard. Arizona Avenue actually runs through the park – the tumbleweed Christmas tree is on the west side.
There is plenty of free parking downtown or at nearby civic facilities.
Celebrating the holidays in Chandler
The holiday season in Chandler gets started each year with the parade of lights and tumbleweed tree lighting ceremony in early December.
You’ve missed those activities for the year, but the Chandler tumbleweed Christmas tree can still be seen from now through January. It is lit each evening. Weekends bring often include special events downtown.
Downtown Chandler has a few local shops, restaurants, and a fabulous-looking Crown Plaza Resort that incorporates the historic San Marcos Hotel. (You can check it out and book a room at Booking.com and TripAdvisor!) There’s enough downtown to enjoy an afternoon of shopping and dining along with your Christmas sightseeing.
Looking to find a few tumbleweeds yourself?
Sorry to disappoint anyone hoping to see a tumbleweed plant or harvest a few to take home, but (despite the name) neither Chandler’s Tumbleweed Park or the Tumbleweed Ranch are used to grow tumbleweeds.
Perhaps the city will have to consider this though, as this one-time agricultural area has become so developed that it is hard for park staff to find enough tumbleweeds in the city to build their unique Christmas tree!