August 29, 2008 - 11:07AM
At first my wife Cathy and I thought the spaghetti colored vine with no leaves was beautiful as it sat atop a small scrub bush. It looked like a large Christmas bird nest or wreath. We found it growing in the front yard all alone. Maybe we can use it for church flower decorations, we thought. I was fascinated and happened to see another few bird nests along Bay Drive, but strangely enough nowhere else along South Walton’s county roads.
Imagine that. Only three places, and we were blessed to have such a strange plant in our yard. So I asked my neighbor to show it to her botanist boyfriend.
It was Dodder, he reported back, one of the top 10 worst plants in the Americas. It also goes by the nicknames of witch’s hair, devil’s hair, strangler, the vampire, and strangely enough, the love vine. It’s mysterious in origin but has managed to find a new home in South Walton.
Basically I think it comes from outer space – at least that’s what it looks like – and its life cycle is beyond sci-fi outer limits. Here I thought the killer Venus Fly trap was the ultimate plant, but this thing seems to have intelligence. So hang on and get ready for meeting hell’s gift to the plant world.
Dodder lives off its host’s blood or sap. (Spanish moss lives off air nutrients and just uses trees to catch nutrients.) Dodder attaches to the stem of a plant, curls around it tightly, then sends probes into the victim and starts to suck its life’s fluids.
It has a ravenous appetite and sends more tentacles out to other plants to feed on. It has no root system; only the sufferers’ innards satisfy its taste buds. It does flower during the year and when the tiny flower goes to seed it scatters to the ground. Once the seeds blow reports say it’s almost impossible to control. Then it takes root and sends up a lone stalk maybe eight to 12 inches long.
Remember? I said hang on… now go lock yourself in the bathroom.
Once up in the air that stem “smells” for its victim. It rotates like an upright Cobra, smelling, and chooses which scent from surrounding plants has the most tempting aroma. It then stretches out for that plant. Once in contact it no longer needs its earthly root and wraps around the victim, sending needle roots into the unknowing plant.
Now Dodder is established and alive and well. No need for ground nutrients, no need for rain or sunshine. As long as that plant victim lives, so does it. When the plant becomes anemic, its winding threads reach out for a nice smelling plant in the surrounding area.
Yet even more alien is that if the “new seedling” can’t find an agreeable scent and if the victim is beyond reach it dies within four to seven days of hatching. It must have plant blood!
If the host it attaches to is ill with a virus, Dodder just absorbs the illness and it has no affect on its life. When it moves across the stems to attack another doomed plant, it starts sucking and gives the virus to the new prisoner. If a new delectable treat is beyond reach, Dodder simply extends its long fingers, attaches to the undesirable plant that may be in the way, and uses it for a bridge till it can get to the new cuisine.
But how did botanists know the plant could use the intelligence of smell? They planted a Dodder seed in a pot with various potted plants in a circle around the germinating vampire. Sending up a tentacle it circled around clockwise as if sniffing out its meal. It proceeded to reach for the innocent tomato vine.
They tried it again changing plant locations in the circle. Again Dodder reversed course and still went for the tomato. They planted another seed, and placed various plants once more in a circle but this time rubbed the essence of the tomato plant on a small steel pole. The seed sprang up and its deadly aperture circled and then when for the steel pole with the concentrate.
This space invader, to me, seems more surreal than the root-bound carnivorous species in that it uses the senses and moves in order to feed.
Needless to say we have counter-attacked the front yard enemy and are trying to eradicate any traces of the monster.
Just remember to look around before you get into that hammock for nappy time. Dodder may be inhaling your aroma and stretching a whipping tentacle toward you.
Oh yes, I plan on informing our forest ranger that Dodder invaders have landed here in Walton County and hopefully he’ll let me show him to the other two locations so we can catch it before it seeds.
Ring, ring, ring, ring!
“Is this the forest ranger’s office?”
“Yes it is. How can I help you?”
“I’d like to report alien intruders have arrived.”
A long pause, then a click followed by an uncaring buzz tone.
Fair winds to ye, matey.