The masses of thin wiry red stems covering this patch of heather and heaths is a botanical oddity. It is known as the dodder. My interest in the origins of names led me to investigate the French and English for the plant. The English word 'dodder' appears to mean 'a knocking back'. That fits, since it is clearly hammering the heaths. Several related species can be a curse of both field and garden plants throughout the world. That it is an ancient anglo-saxon name suggests that in the past it was more common as a pest than now. The plant is a complete parasite, without any green leaves. Its climbing twisting stems send root like suckers into the tissues of the host. In this combination of structures it is unique amongst flowering plants. It has tiny bunches of pink flowers. They are scented, so attract insects for pollination. The flower form shows that the plant is related to bindweed and morning glory. The flowers produce seeds. When these germinate they produce roots and, as long a host plant is closeby, the first long shoot attaches itself to the host and the root of the seedling then degenerates. In the wild it particularly attacks heath, gorse and thyme but will attack lucerne and beans. It occurs here and there in southern Britain and Europe, though the only time I have seen any large patch of it is that in the photo.
As for the French name; if it were that much of a pest in ancient times, you would expect it to have a name of French or Gaulish origin. In fact 'cuscute'is derived from the arabic 'kâchuth' and its earliest known use dates from about the year 1200. This implies some kind of intercourse with the moorish world. It seems unlikely that the link was agricultural and much more likely that it was medicinal! The moorish doctors were knowledgeable. So what could be the medical use? An old recipe was to boil the fresh red threads and add ginger and allspice. This was said to alleviate kidney and liver troubles. A French book claims that it was efficacious against la phtisie - tuberculosis of the lung or 'consumption'.
natural history index | home page