No, someone didn’t toss a mess of orange plastic twine out in the prairie, though that’s certainly what it looks like. That crazy jumble of orange is the parasitic plant called dodder (Cuscuta sp.). It has no chlorophyll, so is unable to photosynthesize – hence the non-green color. Instead, it attaches itself to its host plants and extracts food from them. The dodder in our prairies appears to favor goldenrod and sunflower species.
Dodder has no leaves, and only tiny flowers that produce tiny seeds. We’ve never harvested the seeds, but dodder shows up in our restored prairies anyway. I think that’s great. The fact that a parasitic plant can find and colonize amongst its host plants is just another indication that our restored prairies are functioning well. I’ve never been able to find anyone who knows much about how its seeds travel, but there is a lot of speculation that they hitch rides on people, equipment, and animals. Whatever – it seems to work!
I have a soft spot for species like dodder that have made their own counter-culture way in life. (I no longer remove cowbird eggs from grassland bird nests for the same reason – so sue me.) A plant that doesn’t even have leaves? What a great idea! Why make your own food if you can get it from someone else??
I’ve never seen evidence that dodder is eaten by anything, though I have to assume that something feeds on it. Otherwise, we’d probably be swimming in dodder – and that might reduce its attraction to me just a little!