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Commentary by Mari Carbajal
| Thursday, Sep 4, 2014

maricarbajalOne does not usually consider the word “parasite” as beautiful or impressive. However, in the Kingdom of Plante lies an extremely interesting parasitic plant sometimes called devil’s guts, devil’s hair, devil’s ringlet, goldthread, hailweed, hellbine, love vine, pull-down, strangleweed, angel hair or witches hair. The correct name is dodder (Cuscuta californica).

There are approximately 100 to 170 different species of dodder in the world, all in various colors of red, orange and yellow. However, in Southern California you may see only a vivid orange or sometimes orange-yellow.

Dodder is a member of the morning glory family, Convolvulaceae, and grows in symbiosis with a host plant, similar to the relationship between Western sycamore or juniper and the ever-popular mistletoe.

California dodder is a leafless, parasitic vine with slender stems that individually fastens itself to a host organism by means of a root-like structure called haustoria, allowing it to draw nourishment from the host. If any leaves are present on dodder, they are minute and scale-like.

Unlike other plants, dodder has almost no chlorophyll, which makes its ability to photosynthesize ineffective. The plant has no roots and therefore depends upon its host for nourishment and survival.

Dodder on Sage

Dodder on sage | Photos by Mari Carbajal

Although dodder is sometimes referred to as a plant, there is controversy in the scientific world as to whether it is actually a plant or a fungus. Some say if you look at this parasite by its life history, it is in fact a fungus; however, if look at its evolutionary history, it’s a plant. You can draw your own conclusion.

From May through July, you might see dodder in bloom. The flowers are small, white, and arranged in loose clusters. The sepals of the flower are somewhat shorter than the corolla tube with re-curved lobes, with the corolla shallowly bell-like shaped and tapered at the tip, acute, spreading to reflexed lobes. The fruit is a capsule with light brown rounded seeds somewhat flattened on two sides.

Dodder tends to be fairly specific to the host plant it chooses. Experiments are currently taking place by scientists and universities intrigued by this parasite. It appears that dodder will instinctively grow more toward a plant that can provide the moisture it requires. However, dodder will also attach itself to drier plants such as buckwheat – a drier, less water-absorbent plant – and it has been found that the dodder on the drier plant host will die much sooner than those that attach to a host with more water in its system.

Dodder in bloom

Dodder in bloom

It is thought that dodder is able to sense its host’s prospects through scent and chemical volatile. Even though in experiments these same scents were sprayed on artificial plants, the dodder still reached out to the living plant, opposed to the artificial plant, even though the chemical structures of scent were the same.

The species californica, in a chaparral environment, seems to be mostly partial to varieties of buckwheat, sage, deer weed, and haplopappus (a member of the daisy family). It can be differentiated from any other dodder species that might grow in the same area by the length of the corolla appendages, which are small, scale-like structures with somewhat irregularly fringed tips attached to the corolla at the base of the stamens. Californica appendages are either lacking or short, to 0.1mm, while other species have appendages that are 0.7mm to 2.5mm.

Subinclusa is the other common dodder with slender flowers and long tubes with petal tips that mostly stay straight out and absent or very short stamen filaments. It also tends to be more orange than yellow.

California dodder inhabits many plant communities from sea level to 8,200 feet in most of California’s hill- or mountainsides and in deserts and chaparral communities.

Keep your eyes open for this unique and intriguing species. It is currently in full display here on the high desert and is a beautiful plant (or fungus?) to explore up close.

The dodder plant alone has many scientific communities wondering whether the method to determine these plant species is accurate and acceptable.

Maybe someday the scientists will make a final determination as to its true classification. Until then, we can all scratch our heads and enjoy the beauty in its ability to be an intelligent and most mysterious form of life.

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5 Comments

  1. Thank you for this plant/fungi information. I have seen it year after year and have tried finding info to no avail. We would joke that the aliens were trying to colonize our planet and this was their first step!

  2. Tony Bereny says:

    I see this entity all the time on trails. Now I will have to stop and examine it to see if it reminds me of fungus…

  3. Stacy Grover Stacy Grover says:

    Thank you for clearing up that mystery.

  4. I’ve always know it as “witches hair.”

  5. Paul A Levine says:

    Superb article. Just to add a tidbit to the article, it is also the host plant for the Brown Elfin, a very small brown butterfly about the size of a fingernail that flies in the early spring.

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