Gorse Dodder (Cuscata epithymum)
A tangled mass of slender, reddy-coloured threads draped over gorse or heathers; tiny, pale-pink, densely clustered bell-shaped flowers. An annual, parasitic plant, that entwines itself, always anti-clockwise, around the host plant.
In Latin, Cuscuta means Dodder. However, Cuscuta is thought by some to have Arabic origins in the word “Kushkut.” The specific epithet suggests the plant that this dodder was found growing on: Thyme. The Greek prefix “epi“ means upon or over, and “thymum” is Latin for thyme
It is also known as Adder’s cotton, Beggarweed, Bride’s laces, Clover devil, Clover dodder, Common dodder, Cuscute du thym (French), Devil’s guts, Devil’s net, Devil’s thread, Dodder of thyme, Epiphany, Fairy hair, Klein Dodder (Afrikaans), Hairweed, Hairy bind, Hellbind, Hellweed, Herbe d'emeute (Channel Islander-Guernsey), Kokotice povázka (Czech), Kuskuto timiana (Esperanto), Lady’s laces, Lesser dodder, Llindag Lleiaf(Welsh), Maiden’s hair, Mulberry, Red tangle, Scald, Scaldweed, Strangle-tare, Strangleweed, and Touothelle (Channel Islander-Jersey Norman-French); and in flower language is said to be a symbol of baseness, and meanness.
Certainly the common names like Bride’s or Lady’s laces are descriptive of the thread-like stems, and Strangle-tare well explains how dodder throttles to death any plants it winds through.
One of the common plants on the property is gorse. Everyone will be familiar with the thorny evergreen gorse shrub with its bright yellow flowers. Gorse begins to flower in late autumn and then flowers through winter. It flowers most strongly in spring. It has a strong scent that smells just like coconut.
But you may see something rather odd—gorse bushes sometimes completely covered with a strange, tangled, mass of red threads. This is gorse dodder.
Gorse dodder is a parasitic annual plant. In spring it starts to grow and twines round any nearby plant. Once it has found a plant to scramble over, the lower stem withers and from then on the dodder is entirely dependent on its host for food. The dodder suckers penetrate the stem of the host and food is “sucked” out of the host.
Dodder grows very quickly and it does not take long for a large gorse bush to be totally covered.
It is a small parasitic plant which contains no chlorophyll, therefore has no green colouration.
Plant parasitism is a type of symbiotic relationship in which plants obtain nutrients directly from another plant. Although parasitic plants are commonly known to lack chlorophyll, some species have green organs.
Dodder is a unique plant because it is a true obligate parasite. That is, dodder’s host receives no benefit whatsoever from dodder and dodder must have its host to survive. Dodder does not have any leaves nor any chlorophyll to produce its own food. It lives by attaching to a host with small appendages (called “haustoria”) and extracting the host plant’s carbohydrates.
Cuscuta epithymum is capable of both cross-pollination and self- pollination. Many different species of insects may contribute to pollination. One study indicated that ants were some of the main pollinators, while another observed visits to the flowers by species of bees, wasps, flies and other insects, collectively from 8 families of insects.
History and Folklore
In medieval times, the health benefits of dodders were believed to be determined by their respective hosts. C. epithymum occurred frequently on thyme. Thus, because thyme was considered – figuratively, not literally – a hot, dry plant, it was believed that C. epithymum was therapeutic because of its warm characteristics. It was also believed that when ground up and mixed with dog blood or other plants, Cuscuta epithymum would help keep an individual safe from evil spirits
Medicinally it was used by herbalists to treat melancholia, fainting, heart complaints, jaundice and kidney ailments
Cuscuta earned the common name “love vine” because of a Native American Pawnee belief. A girl would pluck part of a vine and throw it behind her while thinking of a certain someone. If, on the next day, the parasitic vine had reattached itself, it was a sign that the certain someone would be a good suitor.
Cuscuta epithymum is known in Jersey as “fairies' hair.