Griffith Park is home to a strange plant by the common name of California Dodder (Cuscusta californica). Dodder can be found on every slope of the Park. Many people describe it as spaghetti or noodles that become entangled and twisted as it climbs onto the surrounding vegetation.
Dodder is very easy to spot because it’s not green but orange, which allows it to stand out from the adjacent vegetation. So why is it orange and not green like other plants? Dodder belong to a group of plants that decided to abandon the green pigment chlorophyll and the photosynthesis process for generating food. Rather than working, dodder steals the resources and water of other plants which makes this plant a type of parasite.
The life of a dodder plant starts with a seed that may be carried by birds or other organism; when the seed is deposited onto a stem or leaf of a host plant the seed will then grow. Upon germination, the seedling root known as the radicle will use force to penetrate the cuticle or skin of its host plant, thus making a connection with the vascular system of its host. Once the parasite establishes a connection with the vascular system of its host plant, dodder will begin to steal the water, food, vitamins and minerals from its host. Fueled by resources from the host plant, dodder will then begin to grow very rapidly and will twist and twine around adjacent vegetations, sometimes completely engulfing them. As the stems of dodder continue to wrap around other plants, new and further connections to the host vascular system are established.
After several months of growth, dodder eventually flowers and creates seeds that will be dispersed to other areas and these seeds will then find a new host and begin growing. Even though dodder is a parasitic plant, it’s still an important plant to the ecology of Griffith Park and should not be treated as a harmful organism. Dodder will flower during the hot summer months, providing native insects with a valuable meal and drink during the months when many other California native plants are dormant.
In Griffith Park’s natural setting, dodder may serve a purpose in Mother Nature’s grand plan, culling host plants – such as the abundant laurel sumac – which is weakened by its grip. It may not necessarily kill the whole host plant, but rather check its growth. In a monocultural, agricultural setting, on the other hand, it can be a real killer and a threat. But that’s not Griffith Park.
~Jorge Ochoa is an associate professor of horticulture at Long Beach City College.
He often leads FoGP walks through Griffith Park
and occasional lectures on fauna found throughout the Park.
Ochoa is also one of the FoGP Advisors
Photos, from top, left: blooms are very petite.
Bottom: spaghetti-like strands weave their way into plants until the lifecycle is complete.