In the past 18 months, Wendy Buckley has been an anxious plant parent. Week after week, she has been keeping a close eye on the blooms in her Langata home garden after a most invasive parasite nearly killed them.
One evening, she noticed a pale growth intertwined with one of her bedding plants in a rockery.
"I hadn't seen anything like it before. It has lots of fine strands with ball-shaped attachments. There was not much of it, but I could see how it travelled in and around the plant. I made a mental note to chat with my gardener about it the next day. However, when I came out the next morning, I couldn't believe how much it had grown overnight. It now looked like a cloud growing over and around the whole plant," she recalls.
Ms Buckley tried to unravel the stems, but that was useless.
"The stems were so fine that they broke almost immediately, and there were far too many to make a difference. I later learned that this was a self-protective action of the parasite, so it could not be removed. Clever!" She says.
But Ms Buckley was sick with worry that the bedding plant was suffocating. After some discussions with her gardener, she tried various treatments they usually applied in the garden. Nothing made a difference. "I was very concerned about its spreading speed and did not want to lose other plants, too."
After doing online research, she eventually identified the parasite plant as a dodder or 'fairy vine'. Its proper name is 'Cuscuta,' and it attaches itself to healthy plants and makes them more vulnerable to diseases. Plus, it doesn't help the plant's growth as it smothers.
"I certainly didn't want it in my garden, nor did I want it travelling and infecting my neighbour's gardens," she says.
Ricardo Arao, a gardener, advises that once you see a dodder in your garden, you must eliminate it immediately.
"It negatively affects the tree in terms of nutrition. For the smaller plants, it can kill them, but for the large ones, it reduces their vigour and can predispose them to diseases," says Mr Arao of the unsightly dodders.
He says a dodder seeds and germinates. Being an obligate parasite, it cannot survive without a plant, so it grows quickly and then looks for a tree, lurches onto it, and its roots die out, leaving it to rely on the tree for support," Mr Arao explains.
The only way to destroy the dodder is by using an herbicide.
At first, Buckley, who prides herself in practising eco-friendly gardening, was hesitant about using the synthetic product. But she was desperate to stop the invasion.
"After spraying the herbicide, I lost the one plant the fairy vine was wrapped up in, but fortunately, nothing else died. We then burnt the plant and the vine and carefully hunted for any of the small balls that might have fallen off the vine as those are the starters of the new parasitic growth," Ms Wendy narrates her experience under the destructive power of the dodder.
For weeks and months now, she has been watching that area of the rockery, hoping to catch any new growth. She is grateful that she hasn't had a recurrence of the parasite.
How do you prevent dodders?
The primary way to prevent dodders has been to ensure the use of dodder-free planting seed to avoid a dodder infestation. Upon contact with a dodder-infested area, it is advisable to clean all clothing and equipment before moving to a clean space. When you have a dodder infestation in your garden, mow the lawn, prune your plants, or spray herbicides to produce dodder seeds.
If unchecked, dodders can destroy large areas of crops such as asparagus, melons, and tomatoes. In the event of a dodder parasite infestation, it will be prudent to inform the agricultural officer of your county to offer assistance.
Dodders are not a death sentence for your garden. When dealt with earlier in advance, keeping them under control and saving most of your plants can be easy.