Dodder - Botany And History

Dodder is a unique and uncanny-looking plant of the Convolvulaceae family, somewhat related to the morning glory. It is a parasitic plant which grows on, and feed from any number of host plants, most commonly thyme, gorse, and acacias. The plant is found throughout the world, and thrives most especially in the tropics and subtropics, where it is considered a pest and often eradicated long before it can damage local cultured flora, although it is often intentionally propagated in some select areas in Asia due to its attributed medicinal properties. It also grows in Europe, although the plant rarely thrives in cold or cool temperatures and only four to five species of it can be found in select areas of Northern and Eastern Europe, where it is both considered a weed and a medicinal plant. While dodder was initially a blight upon various plant species (both wild and cultivated), recent innovations and the introduction of modern agricultural methods have prevented the spread of dodder, it can nevertheless still be found thriving on waste areas or grasslands, where it has a tendency to latch itself upon various plants, often spreading, sometimes unchecked, to soon invade every viable plant in a field. [1]

Dodder is unmistakable due to its unique colouration, features, and its stark contrast to the host plant. The plant is usually only a leafless mass that appears delicate, stringy, and vine-like, typically red, yellow, orange, and rarely, green in hue, that can be seed climbing and twirling itself above plants. Dodder is often noted for its lack of roots, caused in part by the fact that its original roots die as it begins to integrate itself more deeply into its host's vascular system. [2]

The plant is also notable for its tiny flowers, which typically resemble clustered bulbs of pink, cream, or yellow-hued florets. The plant also produces fruits that is similar to a common pea in size and appearance, that houses innumerable hard, minute seeds, that can survive without germinating in soil for as long as ten years if the current weather is un-ideal, making it capable of spreading throughout a whole field given the ideal situation. Dodder is generally able to thrive sans a host only for so long, being incapable of photosynthesising due to its lack of leaves (although some species are able to do this, they are incapable of doing it independently) and weak overall frame and root system. Dodder seedlings that are unable to latch itself upon hosts readily die, and those that have managed to attach themselves to hosts in ideal temperatures (i. e. too hot, too cold) are also unable to survive.

Dodders that have germinated in strongly ideal conditions and find equally ideal hosts are able to thrive for as long as the host thrives, and is able to spread and infest all other surrounding plant life with ease. Some dodders are annuals especially in regions that suffer from the occasional cold spell or frost. These species of dodder usually grow chiefly on low vegetation, die out by the time the cold spell arrives, and geminates again to invest plants come the springtime. Dodder that grows in tropical to subtropical regions however are able to spread to even the uppermost regions of its host plant, sometimes even engulfing the whole plant (or field) itself. [3]

Dodder can be a highly invasive species, often preferring to grow and infest various horticultural and agricultural plants such as dahlias, petunias, alfalfa, flax, and potatoes (just to name a few). Once a dodder 'colony' has been established, it can be very difficult to rid the host plant of the dodder vines, unless it is killed. In the wild, plants that are infected by dodder are more susceptible to diseases and other parasites, and, depending on the severity of the infestation, may eventually die due to malnutrition. In spite of its unwanted nature, dodder is often wildcrafted due to its medicinal usage, and sometimes (albeit rarely) even actively cultivated on choice host plants that are intentionally infested with dodder for the same purpose (as is the case of dodder of thyme or dodder of basil). It is commonly thought that dodder takes on the attributes of its host plant and somehow multiplies those attributes into a more concentrated form. In theory, dodder that has infested a poisonous plant will invariably take on its poisonous attributes to protect itself against various grazing animals, while dodder that infests non-poisonous plants has lesser chances of surviving. It is this idea that has given rise to the rare cultivation of dodder in choice therapeutic plants such as thyme, rosemary, basil and oregano for the purpose of harvesting the plant on a later date for medicinal uses. Wildcrafted dodder is not at all uncommon though, especially in China and Japan where it plays a part in both Traditional Chinese Medicine and kampo Japanese alternative medicine. Dodder also has some degree of employment in the history of European or Western Alternative Medicine, although it is rarely used as such outside of Europe, with some probably employment of the plant by various First People tribes in the Americas prior to the colonisation. Today, dodder is only rarely employed as a medicinal plant, and oftentimes only in Traditional Chinese Medicine (it has, however, also been noted in Ayurveda), although with the growing revival of the interest in folk medicine and enthnobotany and the spread of TMC outside of the Chinese mainland, dodder is now occasionally employed as medicine by Western practitioners. [4]

Dodder - Herbal Uses

The chief employment of dodder is as a medicinal plant, often wildcrafted and sometimes (albeit rarely) cultivated, although it may have had some use as a type of famine food in some areas, since various suggestions as to steaming its stems or roasting the seeds for consumption has been reported, albeit no longer commonly practiced. It is used as medicine in various alternative medicinal practices, but is chiefly employed in Traditional Chinese Medicine, Japanese kampo, and some systems of Ayurveda. For a time, it was also employed in Western folkloric medicine, although the practice became out of vogue long before the advent of the Victorian Era.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the seeds of the dodder are often harvested and ground into a fine powder, which is then made into tablets or encapsulated and taken to treat osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, and general muscular aches and pains. It has even been given as a substitute for calcium supplements in individuals who suffer from low bone density, along with a prescribed dietary regimen to be followed for several months to up to several years, with extreme attention paid to the dosage, as the seeds of dodder, if consumed in very large quantities, can be hepatotoxic. The stems of the plant are also wildcrafted, these later employed in either fresh or dried form and decocted into a tisane which is believed to tonify the kidney and the liver, promote detoxification, and stimulate the spleen. It has been employed since ancient times as a remedy for jaundice and gout. Some schools of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Japanese kampo even believe that dodder tisanes can effectively treat erectile dysfunction (i. e. act as an aphrodisiac), premature ejaculation, and impotency in males. Dodder has been used for a variety of other ailments in the field of Traditional Chinese Medicine, and has been prescribed for everything from fevers and skin disorders (the stems decocted as a tisane and employed internally or externally), oedema (the stems dried, powdered, and applied to the affected areas, fresh stems decocted into a tisane and drunk), and even paralysis (the stems and seeds dried, made into tablets and consumed, or a strong tisane brewed and drunk). [5]

In Japanese kampo (their system of traditional herbal medicine), very potent decoctions of dodder are employed in a similar manner to that found in Chinese Traditional Medicine, although it's has been used as a remedy for vaginal discharge (if applied onto the affected area as a wash or used as a douche), as a remedy for various venereal diseases (if taken orally and applied topically to the affected area simultaneously), and as an aphrodisiac-cum-general tonic if steeped in wine (sake) or brewed as a tisane. [6]

Dodder has also been employed in Ayurveda as a remedy for jaundice, or, if decocted mildly and drunk, as a mild laxative and a moderately potent analgesic. When steeped in jaggery or honey, it is also given as a remedy for cough, boils (applied topically), and as a daily tonifying medicine believed to boost the overall health of the immune system if consumed moderately. [7]

In Western alternative medicine, dodder may have been employed as a remedy since the early 1500s in a theoretical sense, because by the 17th century, various herbals have begun describing the medicinal constituents of dodder believed to have been practiced prior to the time. One of the strongest believers in dodder's medicinal capacity was the herbalist Nicholas Culpeper, who listed several uses for the plant, but had a unique theory regarding it which persists in Western alternative medicine to this day. Culpeper believed that the parasite took on the properties of whatever plant it had managed to infest. Culpeper's theoretical concept suggests that dodder which grows on poisonous plants becomes poisonous, while that which grows in plants that possess powerful medicinal properties becomes all the more curative. Culpeper had a preference for dodder which infested thyme, although of equal note is those that infested basil, oregano, rosemary, clover, and alfalfa. He prescribed dodder from such sources (with particular preference for dodder of thyme) as a remedy for headaches, tremors, general malaise, palsy, and inordinate fainting, usually in the form of a tisane or an aqueous extract taken internally. Tisanes brewed from the fresh stems of dodder were also given as a diuretic, and, in a similar vein to Asiatic practices, as a tonic for the liver, spleen, and kidneys. Culpeper strong recommended dodder of thyme to treat various infectious diseases, while dodder of nettles makes for an excellent diuretic and a remedy of various urinary tract infections. When combined with senna Cassia obovata, it makes for an excellent purgative and mild anthelmintic. Unlike in the East, however, the West refrains from using dodder seeds medicinally. [8]

Because Western alternative medicine values specific 'types' of dodder, some herbalists actively cultivate dodder varietals from various medicinal plants (also in part to avoid possible poisoning from wildcrafted dodder), although the practice is still somewhat rare, and the modern applications of dodder is few and far-flung in contrast to its Eastern usage.

Dodder - Esoteric Uses

In spite of its long-standing, albeit rare, use in Western alternative medicine, dodder only has very few esoteric uses. It has been used as a type of divinatory tool for ascertaining the veracity of a lover's affections, by ripping out some dodder and throwing it behind one's back making sure to throw it so it hits the host plant. According to lore, if it re-attaches itself to the host by the morrow, then one's lover's feelings are true. Because it is a vine, dodder has also been employed in knot-magick and binding spells, although exactly how it is used may vary between practitioners. [9]

Dodder - Contraindications And Safety

There is very little knowledge regarding the general safety of dodder. Because it may absorb poisons from the plants it infects, not all dodder that is available on the market (especially if sourced from wildcrafted dodder) may pose some degree of toxicity. As a general safety rule, pregnant and nursing women should not be given dodder, nor should infants and children. It is best to investigate the source of dodder prior to partaking of any supplements which may contain it. To ensure further safety, avoid wildcrafted dodder which may be sourced from a variety of different hosts.

Dodder - Other Names, Past and Present

Chinese: tusizi / tu si zi / tu size
Urdu: amar bael (lit. 'everlasting vine')
French: atermoyer / cuscute a petities fleurs / cuscute du thym / petite cuscute / cuscute Chinoise
English: beggarweed / Chinese dodder / Chinese dedder / dedder / devil's guts / hellweed / dodder of thyme / lesser dodder / scaldweed / strangler tare / devil's entrails / petite cuscute (pronounced: kohs-kyuu-tay) / devil's hair / angel hair / witch's hair / pull-down / strangleweed / hailweed / hellweed / hellbine / goldthread / love vine / devil's ringlet
Latin (esoteric): Semen cuscutae
Latin (scientific nomenclature): Cuscuta chinensis / Cuscuta epithymum







Main article researched and created by Alexander Leonhardt.

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