Thursday, July 11, 2013

Doddering Along

Dodder, Hellweed, Devil's Guts.

It's freaky.
Frightening even.
I read about it a number of years ago and felt anxious about the prospect of ever finding it in my garden.

A vampire among plants.

It even looks creepy. Jaundiced yellow strings slung across the green growing stuff. My husband likened it to yellow Silly String.

Dodder. (Cue the screeching violins)

Are you recoiling in horror?

Perhaps the name doesn't quite strike terror in your soul, but some of its other names will -- Hellweed, Devil’s Guts, Strangle Tare, Scaldweed.

So, maybe you're not quite quivering in fear, but dodder is not something you want lurking about.

Dodder is a parasitic plant that is capable of very minimal photosynthesis on its own. It gets pretty much all of its food from the plants it attaches to.

Dodder seed sprouts in the soil, sending up yellow tendrils that wave about "feeling" or "sniffing" for a host plant. When it finds one, it sends roots, called "haustoria," into the green flesh of the plant and its connection to the soil withers. Then it becomes completely dependent on the host plant.

Fortunately, many dodder species are somewhat host specific and will not parasitize or "vampirize" every plant it finds. Many species of dodder exist, but I don't have a clue how they tell them apart. You can find out what species of dodder are likely to infest your region here.
Cereal grains, such as these oats, generally will not host dodder.

Grasses and cereal grains tend to be non-hosts, so you can plant these in an area where dodder has appeared to starve it out. Unfortunately, dodder seeds tend to be rather long-lived, spending a decade or more in the soil before sprouting, so once it appears, you need to keep an eye on the area for quite a while to manage any recurrence. The scariest type of dodder is the Japanese dodder, now invading California, which can completely cover fruit trees, particularly citrus.

The sickly looking patch of dodder showed up in an area of black medic, a leguminous "weed" closely related to alfalfa, one of the dodder hosts of main commercial concern. Other legumes, as well as tomatoes and their relatives, are susceptible to dodder. Fortunately, you can get rid of it fairly easily by cutting off the host plant below where the dodder has attached. Then burn it!

I chose to simply kill out the patch of black medic -- kill host plant and dodder with (gasp) herbicide and will let grass move in. I will keep an eye open for any future dodder sprouts and get it before it creates a 4x4-foot patch again. And I'll keep an eye on any other plants to make sure we haven't inadvertently spread dodder seed elsewhere.

While researching dodder, some vague tendril of memory told me that it might have medicinal value. And indeed it does!

However, that did not save its life. The patch is now brown and crispy. A fitting end to a vampire.


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