Orange Spaghetti? Silly String? UFO Droppings? What Is It?!
You’ve seen it, and no doubt wondered what the heck it was – tangles of bright yellow or orange string that cover plants, usually out in the chaparral, but sometimes in your yard as well. There are currently great masses of it on either side of the 210 Freeway where it crosses La Tuna Canyon Road. It looks like someone sprayed the plants with some kind of orange plastic. Indeed, if you touch it, the plant has a decidedly plastic feel to it. Surprisingly it’s not some weird invasive species – it’s a California native. It’s actual name is cuscuta, and is commonly referred to as dodder, but it has many wildly descriptive nicknames: devil’s guts, devil’s hair, devil’s ringlet, goldthread, hairweed, hellbine, love vine, pull-down, strangleweed, angel hair and witch’s hair.
Last week I described the wild cucumber as one of our weirdest native plants, but I’ll go out on a limb and call cuscuta the weirdest native plant. Its appearance is distinctly alien, but its growth methods are even more other-worldly. Like many aliens in science fiction, it’s parasitic. It comes up from seed as a two-to-four inch thread, which will grow towards plants around it, looking for a suitable host to latch onto. The seedling can sense the prospects of the available host plants, and will grow toward the plants with the greatest amount of moisture and nutrients. It will ignore inanimate objects. Recent experiments have shown that it somehow “smells” suitable hosts. The stem “gropes” through the air until it makes contact, then quickly takes a couple of wraps around the host branch. Once it has a good hold, it then begins to grow sharp appendages (like roots) that penetrate the flesh of the host plant. It is from these insertions into the plant’s vascular system that the cuscuta will draw its water and nutrients. The cuscuta then disconnects from its ground roots and begins growing up its host plant at a rate of nearly three inches a day, sometimes entirely covering the host (victim?).
It does not photosynthesize like normal plants, but instead gets all its nutrients from its host. Although it does not kill its host outright, it can weaken it enough to make it susceptible to disease. If cuscuta is attached to more than one plant it can spread disease as well. Because it doesn’t use photosynthesis, it has no chlorophyll which is the chemical that makes plants green – thus its unnatural color.
In the early summer, the by then well-established cuscuta develops small flowers, then even tinier seeds, which drop to the ground in large quantities, thus making it an annually returning plant. The seeds are hardy and can survive five years until the right conditions for germination are reached.
We tend to see cuscuta in the wild chaparral where it is just a novelty but in agriculture, particularly the alfalfa fields of California’s high desert, cuscuta is a real problem. Up to 90% of the fields have an infestation problem, and mowing or burning the affected areas is often the only solution.
Our local Indians used cuscuta as a cure for black widow bites, but they only used cuscuta that had grown on buckwheat. Apparently the buckwheat introduced certain chemicals into the cuscuta.
Other medicinal uses by the Indians include poultices for treatment of bruises and insect bites, and cuscuta baths for tuberculosis. This use translated to the white man, and early settlers used this cure as well. The Chinese also used cuscuta medicinally.
Cuscuta is found worldwide, in all the temperate and tropical zones, in 170 different species, all of them white, yellow, orange and even red in color. In California it’s prevalent in all areas from sea level to over 8,000 feet. It’s related to the morning glory, although some call it a fungus rather than a plant.
So next time you’re out, note the orange patches on our chaparral covered hills. If you can, get your hands on it to experience its weird texture. This mysterious growth, with its seeming near-intelligence and its alien nature, is by far our strangest native plant.