It's Russian thistle, or tumbleweed, or salsola kali var.tenuifolia. I hate the stuff and it is about the only plant I go after with vengeance and a sprayer. I am no fan of Monsanto, but desperate times call for desperate measures.
Russian thistle shows up where soil has been disturbed, and is usually brought in by equipment. When our house was built, the ground was razed (much to my dismay, but I wasn't here to defend it) and consequently we had a nice crop of the stuff the first couple of years. Then I discovered what it was, and I have been vigilant to eradicate it ever since.
Thankfully it is an annual, and its seeds must be rather heavy because you keep finding it in the same spots and just downwind from it. It has magnificent survival techniques: the plant disperses its seed by breaking off at soil level when it has died and the skeleton tumbles along to another spot to start the cycle over; it also breaks off easily at soil level when you try to pull it up, and it grows, well, like a weed.
I have been helping my friend Linda, who owns property close by, and downwind, to battle Russian thistle at her place. Being an absentee owner, she does not have the opportunity to take this on herself. Unfortunately, her property was once a large horse operation, which means lots of disturbed soil, so going at it really requires stubbornness (read: hate) and time. Today I found to my dismay that I should have been out there weeks ago. With our wet winter there are places thick with the stuff, in spite of the fact that we sprayed our little hearts out last year.
But I was able to get about 1/3 of the infestation sprayed this morning. I fear that if we don't keep at it, her place will be overrun and nothing else will grow there. This is unacceptable to us: those well-manured ex-paddocks will one day be a garden and an orchard.