While kayaking on the Farmington River in Connecticut last weekend, two fun plants were seen along the way. One is common buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) and the other is dodder (Cuscuta sp.), a parasitic plant. Both are native to this area and have unique characteristics.

buttonbush.farmingtonriver.jallenThe buttonbush really does look like it could also be called a snowball bush. From a distance, the ball-shaped flowers look just like that: white balls or fruits. But upon closer inspection you can see that they are really a pretty and intricate cluster of tiny flowers.

The individual fruits are achenes which form a ball shaped reddish aggregate. Another well-known plant with achene fruits is the strawberry. Take a peek below to have a look at both flowers and fruits of this interesting and striking plant.

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Flower photo: J. Allen, UConn         Fruit photo: http://www.illinoiswildflowers.info

Buttonbush is native to the eastern half of North American and parts of Central American and there are isolated occurrences in the west. It is common along riverbanks and other bodies of water and prefers moist sites. It is commercially available for use as a landscape plant and will do well as long as it’s not too dry.

This plant is a food source for some water and other birds, deer and insects. It’s a good option for butterfly gardens on moister sites. It has been used in plantings to prevent erosion. Buttonbush is in the same plant family, Rubiaceae, as coffee and cinchona, the source of quinine. Other members of the family are used for dyes and as ornamentals.

Dodder would not be quite so welcome in the landscape. As a parasitic plant, it gets its nutrients from a host plant that it attaches too where their stems come into contact, weakening the host. Dodder is most often found in moist environments and can parasitize a broad range of plants. The dodder observed on the Farmington River was dining on jewelweed (Impatiens capensis).  As you can sort of see in the photo below, the jewelweed is growing where enough organic matter and debris has accumulated on fallen trees to provide a place to grow over the river.

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Orange, stringy dodder growing on jewelweed along the Farmington River. J. Allen photo.

Dodder is a flowering plant and produces seed from tiny white flowers. This dodder was not flowering yet. Seeds overwinter and germinate the next summer. The young seedlings have rudimentary rootlets that anchor them while they ‘search’ for a suitable host plant using both chemical and physical stimuli. They actually rotate a bit to facilitate finding a host plant. Once that is successful, the dodder stems grow by twining around the host plants and their stems. Where the dodder contacts the host stem, a tiny structure is inserted and allows the dodder to obtain water and nutrients from its neighbor. When dodder grows in landscape plantings or other managed sites, it can be very difficult to eradicate, especially once it’s established for a while. This is because the seeds can survive in the soil for up to five years or more, meaning it will keep coming back for some time even if you manage to get rid of it one season. Another challenge is posed by the fact that herbicides effective for dodder would also be toxic to the host plant. So, if you see dodder where it’s not wanted, get it out of there before it gets established.

Here’s a closer photo of the above plant.

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Dodder (photo by J. Allen, UConn)

Wikipedia lists the following common names for dodder: “strangle tare, scaldweed, beggarweed, lady’s laces, fireweed, wizard’s net, devil’s guts, devil’s hair, devil’s ringlet, goldthread, hailweed, hairweed, hellbine, love vine, pull-down, strangleweed, angel hair, and witch’s hair.” A pretty fun list. I hope you’ve enjoyed a look at a couple of amazing members of the plant kingdom.

J. Allen