Cuscuta L. is a genus of parasitic plants in the Convolaceae Family. The genus was named and described by Carl von Linnaeus in the first volume of the first edition of Species Plantarum in 1753.
Plants of the World Online lists 215 species in the Cuscuta genus (as of 2-18-20 when I am writing this page). That number could change.
The above map shows how widespread the Cuscuta genus is. Plants of the World Online lists 215 species in the genus worldwide. The USDA Plants Database has quite a list of species in North America which I didn’t count. Steyermark’s Flora of Missouri describes 10 species in Missouri alone. Of that 10 species, five are possible candidates for the species growing on my farm in west-central Missouri. I live in Pettis County but Henry is across the street and Benton and Johnson Counties are just a few miles away.
I first noticed this strange creature growing on plants in the pond at the back of the farm on September 18, 2019. Until then, I never even heard of it. I was taking photos of wildflowers at the time so I thought I would take photos of this life form to see if I could make some kind of an ID.
Normally, flowers are pretty much a necessary thing when making a positive ID but something was weird. There didn’t appear to be any flowers or leaves. Just a lot of vines and these strange looking balls. I took photos anyway, a lot of them, because you never know how many will turn out good and how many will be blurry. That’s the problem sometimes when the wind is blowing and when taking close-ups.
So, after I had taken photos of this weird plant and other wildflowers as well, I went back to the house and uploaded the photos on the computer. I sorted through them, wrote captions for the wildflowers I knew then set out to ID what I didn’t. One easy trick to get me started in the right direction for some plants is to drag and drop photos on iNaturalist. The website suggested this plant was either Cuscuta campestris or Cuscuta gronovii. Then I went to the Missouri Plants website and several others to do a bit of reading.What I found out was very interesting. Cuscuta species are parasitic plants that feed off other species… Of the five Cuscuta species that “could” be found on my farm, I could probably narrow that down a bit… The many website says ID can be very difficult.
Once the tiny seeds germinate the seedlings grow toward potential host plants perhaps in response to volatiles released by the host. If a suitable host plant isn’t found within 5-10 days, the seedling will die. Once a host plant is found, they twine around the plants stems and attach to it by suckers called haustoria. Once it is established on a host plant, its roots die and it becomes completely dependent on the host.
The flowers are very weird. I didn’t think there were any flowers present until I started looking at photos online. The above photo shows flowers but they may be almost finished. The balls are the fruit… Now that I know they are growing here I will keep an eye on them in 2020 and maybe I can get a proper ID.
Since these plants were growing in the water at the edge of the pond, their host has to also be a water-loving species. Some species of Cuscuta are fairly host-specific, while others like a varied diet which allows them an extended range. They have very low levels of chlorophyll which is why they depend on a host plant for survival.
Where I live in Pettis County, several other counties are within a few miles. Henry County is across the street… Cuscuta species found in this area, according to Steyermark’s Flora of Missouri, include Cuscuta cuspidata (Cusp Dodder), Cuscuta glomerata (Rope Dodder), Cuscuta indecora (Largeseed Dodder, Large Alfalfa Dodder, Pretty Dodder) (only 7 counties), Cuscuta pentagona (Field Dodder) and Cuscuta polygononum (Smartweed Dodder). I can easily rule out several species…
In 2020 I will take more photos and hopefully make a positive ID. Then, I can add appropriate links for further information.
I have enjoyed photographing and learning about the many wildflowers growing on the farm and other areas. I have grown over 500 different plants and most have pages listed on the right side of the blog. I am not an expert, botanist, or horticulturalist. I just like growing, photographing and writing about my experience. I rely on several websites for ID and a horticulturalist I contact if I cannot figure them out. Wildflowers can be somewhat variable from location to location, so sometimes it gets a bit confusing. If you see I have made an error, please let me know so I can correct what I have written.
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