The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Dodder Looks Like Tangled Yellow-Orange Twine
by Ro Wauer

I was surprised on a recent visit to Magic Ridge, a Texas Ornithological Society Preserve near Indianola, about the abundance of dodder scattered along the roadside, some on low-growing shrubs. The larger patches of this odd-looking plant were obvious, but smaller less developed patches were less noticeable. It looked very much more like discarded yellow-orange spaghetti than a living plant. But on closer inspection it was plant with twining stems and tiny flowers.

Dodder has neither leaves nor chlorophyll, but its white flowers are surprisingly attractive. They form small, dense, stemless clusters of tiny tubular and lobed structures that last only a few days. Dodders become most obvious in summer and fall, and the most noticeable part of the plant is the smooth, twining vine that forms mats on the ground or on various host plants. This viney character of fleshy stems has given it a number of descriptive names: angel's hair, love vine, strangleweed, tangle-gut, and witches' shoelaces.

Dodder is a member of a unique family limited to dodders, but is closely related to the sweet potato and morning-glory. Six dodder species are listed in Plants of the Texas Coastal Bend by Roy Lehman, Ruth O’Brien, and Tammy White (Texas A&M Univ. Press, 2005). The huge Manual of the Vascular Plants of Texas, by Donovan Correll and Marshall Johnston (Texas Research Foundation, 1970), includes a total of 23 Texas species. And about 170 species, mostly in the Americas, are known world-wide. Most species are limited to one or a few hosts, and will not live on other hosts, but others will grow on a wide range of herbaceous and woody plants, even grasses.

Dodders are parasitic. They sprout from a seed and initially develop a root system in the soil. The geminating seed produced a twining stem; this becomes parasitic by means of suckers that penetrate the bark of a host species. The stem then withers away, severing its connection to the ground, and the mature plant spends the remainder of its life living on its host. Although this process may take a year or more, the plants are most noticeable in late summer and fall. At times the yellow plants may cover rather larger areas of several yards, but most individuals are less than a couple feet across.

Human use of dodder in the Americas is limited, although Pawnee Indians are reported to have used it in making a colorfast dye to color feathers. And Elizabeth Silverthorne, in her Legends & Love of Texas Wildflowers (Texas A&M Univ. Press,1996), adds that the "Cherokees crushed the stems to make a poultice for bruises, and other tribes used dodder as a contraceptive and also made a bath from it for patients with lung complaints." She added that the "Chinese used the seeds to treat urinary infections. In England it was used to treat urinary complaints and kidney, spleen, and liver diseases."

Silverthorne also stated that the name of love vine was derived from folklore. "It was said that if a man swung a bit of the vine three times around his head and then threw it backwards, he could find out if his sweetheart loved him. After three days, when he returned to the spot, if he found that the dodder had attached itself to another plant and was growing, the person named when it was thrown returned his love, but if the vine had died, that person did not love him. The fact that the vine usually thrives accounts for the popularity of this test."

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