The Golden Fleece

There are plants that look like a tangle of golden threads. These holostemparasites lack the green of chlorophyll and the ability to photosynthesize but they have unique structures called ‘haustoria’ that penetrate into the vascular tissues of a host plant to access their nutrients, specifically into the phloem tissues, so they are phloem feeders [1] They lack roots and leaves and I was very disturbed to find a mass of them atop a patch of Ivy. Yesterday, there were two tangles and they spread so fast,  I had never thought golden dodder to exist anywhere around this area. Cuscuta campestris , as this species is known in the botanical world, most certainly startled me on my walk.

Cuscuta campestris

Researchers are unable to explain how Cuscuta evolved. They have since placed the plant in the family Convolvulaceae, unlike the Cuscutaceae that I had learnt of during my degree. The plant is phylogenetically close to the tribe Ipomoea that contains all those popular twining species we know of, like Morning Glory and Sweet Potatoes, and here it is, amassed on Ivy, making me uneasy and yet, I marvel at the nature of being.

One simply requires removal of its golden twining stems and pruning of the host plant, so that the garden looks less of a mess. Yet, the plant is an ideal species in research due to its lack of differentiation of plant tissue like other complex Angiosperms. The plant can even create a bridge between different plants for transmission of diseases from one host to another, which can be of immense importance in scientific investigations. The haustorium though, remains little understood as a specialized outgrowth that is unlike any other found in the plant world as also does the fact that Cuscuta isn’t typically host specific.

Dodder haustoria penetrating host stem. | Credit: Spike Walker. Wellcome Images. Light micrograph of a transverse section through dodder (Cuscuta sp) and its host stem, showing haustoria penetrating the host tissues.

In the manner of man’s anthropomorphizing ways, Dodder has been described as possibly the most intelligent plant using taste, smell, movement and touch to manipulate other plants, and hijacking and transferring its genes, large molecules like DNA and RNA, including viruses through its specialized structures. Dodder is also able to use messenger RNA to track the condition of the host plant or to alter it which is similar to horizontal gene transfer between plants and microbes used for the genetic modification of plants species [2]

It is a very unusual holoparasite that even produces greenish to white flowers arranged in a cymose inflorescence. The seeds of Cuscuta campestris may have arrived on the patch of Ivy, dispersed by wind, water, birds, other animals, or by man with machines and planting material contaminated by dodder seeds. Children too, interestingly, can be agents of dispersal in that they tend to ferry the plant stems across a distance [3] The plant is of no economic importance and is considered a noxious weed and here it is, sullying the garden and I don’t know what to think.

So I wondered of each haustorium embedded, producing biochemicals that could dissolve phloem components of the Ivy for absorption, without in fact dissolving itself. Was the Ivy in pain? Was the Dodder, a sadistic plant? Its simple stems had matted the surface and would shade the leaves of the Ivy if left to its own devices, reducing photosynthesis and eventually killing the plant. On the other hand, the Ivy itself seems like an opportunist, crowding out the surface, because horticulturists simply appreciated its cosmetic allure in having climbed historically valuable edifices and now deem it a useful ornamental.

The poem is about that which we do not understand except in the language we know of or the stories we hear, whether those be scientific, cultural  or mythological. This tangled mess of Dodder, that I reluctantly call beautiful,  demanded a divine origin and the Greek myth of the golden fleece seemed most apt. (I have added notes below, on the story, that make for interesting reading) The poem is an attempt at a synthesis of our limited knowledge through the creative lens of our collective illusions.

The Golden Fleece of Dodder 

The world was upside down for a gilded moment,
like roots seeking sun, a golden fleece over Ivy
and your tangled mess lifted to the heavens.

This savage union demanded you twine so,
salivating ecstasy within sentient stratum.
Do you feel, as you kneel and grope leafy vines,

the same as when Poseidon had his way
with Theophane, to let out his inner beast
and make you in his image.

You wore it for kingship, golden, fibrous,
for now you walk over your leafy subjects,
taxing their sunny labours and feeling svelte.

Your weave is the hurried knit of a harried tale
and children playing Argonauts,  will snip at your aphorisms
to pass them on in manner of plundering recruits.

They constellate the land like you seed the stars
in the myths of man; What fascination holds such simple staff
that morphs to serpent on yielding strand?

Notes:

In Greek mythology, the Golden Fleece is the fleece of Chrysomallos, the winged ram with golden wool, which was held in Colchis. The fleece, a symbol of authority and kingship, figures in the tale of the hero Jason and his crew of Argonauts, who set out on a quest for it by the order of King Pelias, in order to place Jason rightfully on the throne of Iolcus in Thessaly. Through the help of Medea, they acquire the Golden Fleece. The story, of great antiquity, was current in the time of Homer (eighth century BC). It survives in various forms, among which the details vary [4](Wikipedia)

The ram was fathered by Poseidon in his primitive ram-form with the nymph, Theophane, the granddaughter of Helios, the sun-god. The golden ram saved Phrixus, the son of Athamas the Minyan, a founder of Halos in Thessaly but also king of the city of Orchomenus in Boeotia (a region of southeastern Greece) and the goddess Nephele. The ram took the boy Phrixus to Colchis and in essence, this act returned the golden ram to the god Poseidon, and became the constellation Aries. Phrixus settled in the house of Aeetes, son of Helios the sun god. He hung the Golden Fleece preserved from the ram on an oak in a grove sacred to Ares (Mars), the god of war and one of the Twelve Olympians. The fleece was guarded by a never-sleeping dragon with teeth that could become soldiers when planted in the ground. The dragon was at the foot of the tree on which the fleece was placed. In some versions of the story, Jason attempts to put the guard serpent to sleep [4](Wikipedia)

References:

[1]~https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/17429145.2010.541945

Takeshi Furuhashi, Katsuhisa Furuhashi & Wolfram Weckwerth (2011) The parasitic mechanism of the holostemparasitic plant Cuscuta, Journal of Plant Interactions, 6:4, 207-219, DOI: 10.1080/17429145.2010.541945

[2]~https://jonlieffmd.com/blog/plant-intelligence-primer-update-2015

[3]~https://keys.lucidcentral.org/keys/v3/eafrinet/weeds/key/weeds/Media/Html/Cuscuta_campestris_(Golden_Dodder).htm

[4]~https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_Fleece

Image Credit:

Picture Credits~https://mappingignorance.org/2016/08/22/parasite-plant-check/