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Posts Tagged ‘dwarf mistletoe’

Some of today’s hottest movies and television shows feature blood sucking creatures out of myth.  Vampires roam through this current pop culture craze, lulling us into thinking they’re harmless, even beautiful creatures that are woefully misunderstood (“they’re sparkling!” my son – a monster purist – moaned in outrage).  

If you were a plant, you’d know the dark truth:  blood sucking creatures do exist, feeding off the life source of ill fated victims.  Dodder and mistletoe stalk the stems of our foliaged friends, and if you don’t come to their rescue, your plants will succumb.

Often called strangleweed, devil’s-guts, and hellbine, dodder (Cuscuta and Grammica spp.) is a parasitic plant that lives off the chlorophyll of others, such as chrysanthemums, dahlias, trumpet-vines, and petunias.  As a seed, it’s harmless and unassuming, lying in wait for a host to take root nearby.  Upon germinating, the seedling gropes about until it touches its victim, then quickly clutches it in a deadly embrace.  

Snuggling up to its chosen host, dodder checks to see if it has the right chemistry and if the prey “tastes” right, dodder implants itself into the host with haustoria.  Through these root-like extensions, the hellbine feeds, drawing water and food from the hapless plant.  When implantation is complete, dodder continues to vine up and over the victim, letting go of its connection to the soil below.

Though it doesn’t have the public relations power of its holiday cousin, dwarf mistletoe (Arceuthobium spp.) is a well-known parasite in Colorado forests.  Like dodder, these leafless plants lives off those we love by colonizing Douglas fir and ponderosa, limber, pinyon and lodgepole pines. 

Implanting itself into the trees with “sinkers,” dwarf mistletoe slowly drains the life out of its host (something my son can relate to, having endured this summer’s popular vampire romance movie to please his date).  Look for the yellow- or brown-green segmented shoots rising from infested branches.

To please those who feel dread creatures just need a little understanding, let’s look on the bright side of these parasites.  Dodder is a pretty little plant with slender, delicate stems of yellow or orange (occasionally they’re blushed a trifle red, but ignore that – it isn’t blood).  Though it has no leaves, it does flower, wreathing itself in pinks, whites, and yellow to disguise the fact that it’s producing new spawn from seed. 

And dwarf mistletoe has one trick that’s a sure crowd pleaser:  it spreads its seeds by canon fire.  Blasted from their fruit at near 60 mph, the young splatter the forest in a gluey mass, sticking to anything they hit: branches, birds, or hikers.  If it happens to be a suitable host, the seeds germinate and begin to feed.  Watch for this phenomenon in August and September.

 Drive a stake through the parasite if you’d like, but control for either really relies on removal.  Prune off infested tree branches or pull and destroy dodder infested plants. 

This post was previously published in the Longmont Ledger.

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