If you’ve ever passed a gorse bush on a cliff top or heath and wondered why it’s covered in something resembling a blanket woven from strawberry bootlaces, then you’ve encountered one of Britain’s most curious plants, Cuscuta epithymum, otherwise known as dodder.
Dodder begins its annual lifecycle in spring when it germinates and twines around a host plant, preferably a gorse bush (Ulex europaeus), heather (Calluna vulgaris) or clover (Trifolium spp). Once the dodder has become established its lower stems wither, effectively leaving the young plant high and dry. All is not lost, because suckers on the dodder’s wandering, chlorophyll-free threads penetrate the stem of the host, allowing the dodder to live as a parasite. It then spreads rapidly, often completely smothering its unwitting victim.
The whispy, red-pigmented strands are not designed to photosynthesise and become even more interesting when spangled with clusters of tiny pinkish-white flowers in summer. Dodder is one of life’s survivors, a unique energy-sapping oddity which occupies a unique place in our island’s flora.
These photographs taken in Zennor, West Cornwall, in September 2014.