Vegetable Vampire

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Story by Shannon Wianecki

kaunaoa hawaiian plant

Feeling creepy in advance of Halloween this year? Then you’ve got something in common with kauna‘oa, the native Hawaiian dodder. This parasitic plant slinks along Maui beaches and roadsides until fastening onto a hapless vegetable victim. Kauna‘oa is a bona fide plant vampire. Lacking leaves and chlorophyll, it’s unable to survive on its own. Instead, it winds its slender shoots tightly around the stems of a host plant, sinking in hooks through which it draws its sustenance.

Scientists know kauna‘oa as Cuscuta sandwichiana. It’s one of several dodder species from around the world. The generic name, Cuscuta, is derived from the Arabic kuskut, meaning a tangled twist of hair. Old folk names for dodder include devil’s guts, strangleweed, and witch’s shoelace. Some dodders are able to “smell” their next victims. At least one species, Cuscuta pentagona, uses chemical cues to locate host plants in its vicinity. Because of its ability to smother and stunt other plants, dodder is considered a noxious weed on the mainland — a rare designation for a Hawaiian plant!

Ancient Hawaiian la‘au lapa‘au, herbal medicine experts, combined kauna‘oa with other plants to treat chest colds, clean out the gastrointestinal tract, and assist women before and after childbirth.

Despite the plant’s macabre feeding method, kauna‘oa is quite beautiful. Its tangled yellow strands intertwine with leafy green pohuehue vines on island beaches, forming stunning backdrops for purple morning glory flowers. The official lei flower of Lana‘i, it tends to bloom in summer and fall. Clusters of tiny, white bell-shaped flowers dangle like waxy pearls from golden chains. At the 2012 benefit gala for the Hawaiian Island Land Trust, honorees wore beautiful garlands made from kauna‘oa, which thrives in the trust’s Waihe‘e coastal preserve.

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