Dodder (Cuscata sp.)

Pictured, dodder is also called love vine because it tends to love its host plant to death.

One of my favorite books of all time is H.P. Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness.”

I know, you were probably expecting me to say Thoreau’s “Walden” or Leopold’s “A Sand County Almanac.” Those should be required reading of all naturalists. However, they lack one important component: a tentacled, intelligent, starfish-shaped monster.

Lovecraft indulges his readers with big reveals, high suspense, a little science and the most terrifying creatures ever described.

Perhaps, Lovecraft drew inspiration for his imagined creatures from the natural world. He certainly could have found a muse in the subject of this week’s question:

Dear Naturalist,

Lately, I have observed a yellow vine growing in the forest. It looks like silly string or spaghetti. What is this mystery plant?

Ken, Boone

Ken,

You have discovered dodder (Cuscutta spp.), which is also called love vine because it tends to love its host plant to death.

Dodder is in the morning glory family. It begins its life much as other plants: growing up from a shallow root system. However, as the plant matures it reveals its other-worldly nature.

Stems of the dodder reach out and attach themselves to their host plant by small suckers. These stems have tiny, scale-like leaves and small clusters of flowers. The yellow color of the stems reveals that the plant does not contain green chlorophyll, and thus does not photosynthesize.

Instead, as the vine grows it sends out feeding tubes into the tender foliage or stem of any close-growing plant. These tubes invade the tissue of the host plant and absorb its nutrients.

In a short time the love vine will be able to survive completely off of its host plant and its initial root structure will disintegrate.

Sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction.

If you have a question concerning flora and fauna, email dearnaturalist@gmail.com. All of your questions will be answered. One or two will be featured next week. See you on the trails!

Amy Renfranz is a Certified Naturalist through the Yellowstone Association Institute and a Certified Environmental Educator in the state of North Carolina.

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