Santa Clarita Valley hikers should be vigilant while embarking on nature walks through wilderness areas, in this field guide we will discuss the dodder plant, a parasitic plant.
Dodder, a member of the Cuscutaceae family, is quite unlike the plants hikers tend to spot due to its leafless and unnatural yellow-orange threadlike stems that twine around to possess its host plant by extending to nearby plants. The slender, string like stems of the dodder may range from yellow, orange, pink or brown in color. It doesn’t produce its own chlorophyll, which is a chemical that enables plants to use sunlight to produce food and provides them with their green hue. Instead it absorbs food through haustoria, root like organs that penetrate the tissue of its host.
This parasitic plant is sometimes referred to as witch’s hair or devil scouts and starts its journey as a seed dormant on the ground. It can remain dormant for five years and senses organic compounds emitted by a potential host like the strong aroma of sagebrush. The dodder can smell the plants around it and begins to grow temporary roots as the seed proceeds to germinate. It begins to form an anchoring root that sends up a slender stem that latches and grows in a spiral fashion until it reaches a host plant. It then twines around the stem of the host plant and throws out haustoria, which penetrates it.
Once it is fully latched onto the host the plant’s roots die off leaving it completely dependent on the host for all of its water and nutritional needs. As the plant grows, it sends out new haustoria and establishes itself firmly on the host plant. After growing in a few spirals around the host, the dodder finds its way to another and it continues to twine and branch until it resembles a densely tangled web of thin stems evolving around its host.
The dodder plant has the power to do great damage to crops of clover, alfalfa, flax, hops and beans. It’s mainly controlled by the hand removal of the plants from fields and preventing accidental introduction.