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Q. Who is Mr. Smarty Plants?

A: There are those who suspect Wildflower Center volunteers are the culpable and capable culprits. Yet, others think staff members play some, albeit small, role. You can torture us with your plant questions, but we will never reveal the Green Guru's secret identity.

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Ask Mr. Smarty Plants is a free service provided by the staff and volunteers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

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Monday - May 29, 2006

From: Nevada City, CA
Region: California
Topic: Plant Identification
Title: Dodder, rootless, leafless, parisitic twining plants
Answered by: Joe Marcus and Dean Garrett

QUESTION:

Hello, I have been studying wildflowers in California for many years. Yesterday I came across a surprise and I am thus far unable to identify it. As it is raining today, I cannot get a photo, but I will attempt to be descriptive. It is a pink/purple/magenta color, with a top similar to an allium. It has a stem approx 3 ft long, no root, no leaf, and it wraps itself about other host plants as if a morning glory or bindweed. It is very serpentine in that way. The most amazing thing is that it is as if it is an air plant, with no root. There are about 8 of them growing in my meadow around an oak bush and some general weeds and grasses. Do you have a clue as to what this specimen is? I would be happy to send a photo if I hear from you.

ANSWER:

It is likely that the mystery plant is a species of dodder (Cuscuta), rootless, leafless twining plants that parasitize the vascular systems of other plants. They used to be placed in the morning glory family (Convolvulaceae) but are currently classified in their own family, the Cuscutaceae. There are dozens of species in North America, some native, some not, and several grow wild in California. I assume the colors you mention refer to the twining stems, which can range from a straw color to orange or pink/magenta. The flowers are usually white or pinkish white, but they can also be the same color as the stems. From a distance, the flowers' size and shape can give the impression of wild Allium blossoms. Because dodders invade the circulatory systems of their host plants, many of them are considered harmful and invasive. I've seen large areas covered in their straw-colored, leafless stems, making the site look like a jumble of spaghetti.
 

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