Chaparral dodder: Cuscuta californica, Convolvuceae (morning glory family)

Driving past wonder valley a few weeks ago, fields of what were storied to be wildflowers were covered in something akin to discarded construction fencing. I thought, what a shitty thing, to trash all this land with neon plastic netting...and then I realized the tangles of orange sprawled for many meters (miles even?), and were fairly uniform, seemingly evenly spaced and only in heaps that obscured plants, never on the ground. My friend and I got out of the car and learned that these twining messes were very much alive, by parasitic means. Dodder doesn't contain chlorophyll, so it uses little suckers called haustoria to latch onto and draw nutrients from its host. But generally, dodder is more a free-loader than a serial killer, so the host plant usually survives. Since I've never seen this one up until now, I'm guessing it'll shrink away once summer arrives?

But I kind of like it. It makes you look twice. The disorganized bright splash brings a little welcome change to the standard branching and budding structures that dominate our understanding of plant bodies. It makes you think, reminds you how weird this world really is.

Note on designating species: even experts have trouble telling the cuscutas apart, and this may actually be C. denticulata, however, I'm situated between the ecological habitats of the two, and elevation and host plants (mainly buckwheats) give cause to think this is C. Californica. C. denticulata can be a little more yellowy on the orange spectrum and tends to grow at lower elevations (<4000'), dominating open desert regions, whereas C. californica becomes more common as the desert stretches towards the California coast, and is capable of growing at elevations reaching over 8000'.