Dodderotanical: Cuscuta Europaea
Family: N.O. Convolvulaceae
Synonyms: Beggarweed. Hellweed. Strangle Tare. Scaldweed. Devil's Guts.
Belonging to the same family as the Convolvulus is a small group of plants, the genus Cuscuta, that at first glance seem to have little in common with our common Bindweeds. All the members of this genus are parasites, with branched, climbing cord-like and thread-like stems, no leaves and globular heads of small wax-like flowers.
The seeds germinate in the ground in the normal manner and throw up thready stems, which climb up adjoining plants and send out from their inner surfaces a number of small vesicles, which attach themselves to the bark of the plant on which they are twining. As soon as the young Dodder stems have firmly fixed themselves, the root from which they have at first drawn part of their nourishment withers away, and the Dodder, entirely losing its connection with the ground, lives completely on the sap of its 'host,' and participates of its nature.
One British species is very abundant on Furze, another on Flax, others on Thistles and Nettles, etc.
Cuscuta Epithymum, THE LESSER DODDER, is the species of Dodder that formerly was much used medicinally, and which is the commonest. It is parasitic on Thyme Heath, Milk Vetch, Potentilla and other small plants, but most abundant on Furze, which it often entirely conceals with its tangled masses of red, thread-like stems. The flowers are in dense, round heads, each flower small, light flesh-coloured and wax-like, the corolla bellshaped, four- to five-cleft. Soon after flowering, the stems turn dark brown and in winter disappear.
The Dodder which grows on Thyme, C. Epithemum, was often preferred to others.
The threads being boiled in water (preferably fresh gathered) with ginger and allspice produced a decoction used in urinary complaints, kidney, spleen and liver diseases for its laxative and hepatic action. It was considered useful in jaundice, as well as in sciatica and scorbutic complaints.
The juice of two Brazilian species of Dodder is given for hoarseness and spitting of blood and their powder applied to wounds, to hasten healing.
Other species of Dodder which more or less resemble the Lesser Dodder are C. Europaea, THE GREATER OR COMMON DODDER which is parasitical on Thistles and Nettles, and has stems as thick as twine, reddish or yellow, with pale orange-coloured flowers 1/2 to 3/4 inch in diameter; C. Epilinum, FLAX DODDER, parasitical on Flax, to crops of which it is sometimes very destructive, and with seeds of which it is supposed to have been introduced, C. Hassiaca, parasitical on Lucerne, and C. Trifolii, CLOVER DODDER, parasitical on Clover.
Both the Greater Dodder and the Lesser Dodder have been employed medicinally. Culpepper tells us: 'All Dodders are under Saturn. We confess Thyme is of the hottest herb it usually grows upon, and therefore that which grows upon thyme is hotter than that which grows upon colder herbs; for it draws nourishment from what it grows upon, as well as from the earth where its root is, and thus you see old Saturn is wise enough to have two strings to his bow. This is accounted the most effectual for melancholy diseases, and to purge black or burnt color, which is the cause of many diseases of the head and brain, as also for the trembling of the heart, faintings, and swoonings. It is helpful in all diseases and griefs of the spleen and melancholy that arises from the windiness of the hypochondria. It purges also the reins or kidneys by urine; it openeth obstructions of the gall, whereby it profiteth them that have the jaundice; as also the leaves, the spleen; purging the veins of choleric and phlegmatic humours and cures children in agues, a little wormseed being added. 'The other Dodders participate of the nature of those plants whereon they grow: as that which hath been found growing upon Nettles in the west country, hath by experience been found very effectual to procure plenty of urine, where it hath been stopped or hindered.' Many of its popular and local names testify to the bad reputation it had among farmers, such as Beggarweed, Hellweed, Strangle Tare, and Scaldweed, the latter from the scalded appearance it gives to bean crops. The name 'Devil's Guts' shows how much its strangling threads were detested. An old writer comments: 'Hellweed grows upon tares more abundantly in some places, where it destroyeth the pulse, or at least maketh it much worse, and is called of the country people Hellweed, because they know not how to destroy it.' It was not only considered useful in jaundice but also in sciatica and scorbutic complaints. Gathered fresh and applied externally after being bruised, the plant has been found efficacious in dispersing scrofulous tumours. The whole plant, of whatever species, is very bitter, and an infusion acts as a brisk purge.