Wildflowers and Witches' Hair

by John Armstrong, Collaboration Projects Manager

What do Witches' Hair and wildflowers have in common?  Not that much, but I observed a great deal of both on my recent trip through Death Valley and the Grand Canyon.

Question: can Witches' Hair be found in the Palo Alto Baylands, Death Valley, and Arizona?  While traveling to all 3 locations recently, I was surprised to find what I thought was only native to our wetlands also growing in Death Valley and in Arizona near the Grand Canyon.  I recently did a bit of research to see what connects the 3 sightings of Witches' Hair: salty environments such as saltmarshes and inland seas.

Saltmarsh dodder, also called Witches' Hair, is one of the species of Cuscuta. This species grows as a leafless, rootless, yellow or orange vine. It cannot photosynthesize to satisfy its own energy needs so it gets its nutrients and water from its hosts, salt tolerant halophytes, (such as pickleweed, Salicornia virginica), that grow in tidal coastal saltmarshes and inland seas. Such parasites are called holoparasites. Although the plants have little if any chlorophyll and no leaves, they are still classified as true plants.

Wildflowers were going strong when we we visited Death Valley since almost 4 inches of rain fell this winter thanks to El Nino - while that doesn't sound like much, it is twice as much as the 1.9-inch average rainfall for Death Valley.  Wildflowers in the Grand Canyon were also quite prolific this year - according to the boatmen on our 2-week trip down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, they had never seen anything like the profusion of colors and blooms which we saw from the river and on our hikes.  The often-bare ocotillo plants which can look like spiky, dead sticks, were completely green with leaves and quite a sight with their flame-tipped, red blooms.  

Cacti, including beavertail, desert prickly pear, and claretcup hedgehog, were bursting with brightly colored red, pink, purple and yellow blossoms. Orange flowers of the delicate globe mallow were a delight to see. The canyon slopes of talus and shale were amazingly tinged green, as opposed to the usual bare-rock colors (which can also be beautiful in their own way). Blooming brittlebrush painted large swaths of yellow on many slopes.  April blooms are always a treat in the Grand Canyon, but many are calling this a "century bloom" which we were lucky enough to view.  

Some links:     » http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.1600/036364409X482551http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.1600/036364409X482551
» http://www.aquariumofpacific.org/onlinelearningcenter/species/saltmarsh_dodder/
» http://waynesword.palomar.edu/plnov99.htm
» http://www.nps.gov/grca/naturescience/plants.htm