Botany Photo of the Day
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Salicornia virginica and Cuscuta salina

Salicornia virginica and Cuscuta salina

Kind thanks to edgeplot@Flickr from Seattle, Washington for this intriguing photograph (original image | BPotD Flickr Group Pool). edgeplot took this image at the beautiful Deception Pass State Park in Washington. Thank you!

If you visit the original Flickr posting, you'll note that edgeplot titled this image “Parasitism in the Salt Marsh”. I prefer an alternative, more Hollywoodish title: “The Halophyte and The Parasite”.

Salicornia virginica, or pickleweed, is the halophyte. If you're confused as to which plant is the Salicornia, it is the green plant with thickened stems – see this photograph for a parasite-free version. It is able to grow in highly saline environments, such as this salt marsh, through its ability to sequester salt into the vacuoles of its cells. For an explanation of that adaptation, see this page on pickleweed (via Great Salt Lake Playa Ecology). The reference refers to a different taxon, but the mechanism should be the same.

The parasite is Cuscuta salina, or salt-marsh dodder. As edgeplot succinctly explains, “The dodder has twining orange stems and creamy white flowers. It is parasitic and unable to photosynthesize, and lives off nutrients taken from its green pickleweed host.” A short summary about dodder is available from the lab of Dr. Colin Purrington: background on the genus Cuscuta (dodder).

Botany resource link: Fruits and Seeds is a chapter in “Botany Online – The Internet Hypertextbook. Features magnified fruit images illustrating structures aiding seed dispersal.


Your link of the day and photo have an interesting connection. The seeds of Salicornia depressa (=europaea) and I would assume S. virginica as well, have hooks that act much like velcro to attach the seeds to "wrack" (floating salt marsh vegetation). The seeds then float along with the wrack until it is deposited on the marsh surface. Wrack creates bare spots by killing all the vegetation underneath it. These bare spots are exactly the habitat that Salicornia species thrive in as they are highly salt tolerant but don't do well in competition with other plants. So this seed adaptation is beautifully adapted to the life history of the plant.
Thanks for including a photo of one of my favorite genera... Salicornia depressa happens to be the focal point of my master's work in plant ecology. =)

...just there a trade off to the host besides garnishing a rather drab appearence? looks much better with the petite flowers... does the host succumb ?

Collected Salicomia is sold at markets here in San Francisco as a fresh vegetable.

Thanks Justine and Eric.

phillip, in this case, it is a true parasite, so there is no benefit to the host. I'm not certain if the host succumbs in this instance, but it can (and does) in severe infestations.

Actually, Salicornia is usually far from drab in the marshlands here near Monterey (California), during spring and summer the pickleweed is green, with a few blushes of red, but in fall, the tips turn a deep red, changing the entire look of the marsh. When they drop these tips, they help get rid of the sequestered salt. Salicornia is just about the only plant which stabilizes the slough banks as it is about the only thing that will grow in the brackish mud.

I just found a plant of this genus growing on a sandstone mountaintop in central Pennsylvania. I am having trouble keying it out. Any good keys out there?

I'm assuming you mean the Cuscuta, though I suppose Salicornia europaea might grow at elevation along a saline lake. The key in Gleason & Cronquist's “Manual of the Vascular Plants of the Northeast USA and Adjacent Canada” might be helpful. It relies on flower and fruit characters for the fifteen or so species native to the region covered by this flora. A companion illustrated volume to this work was recently published (and is one of the books I fawn over).

Mr. Mosquin:

No, sadly I meant the Salicornia. I was afraid of this when I started checking my identification. There is absolutely no possibility of a saline anything at this site. I cannot even imagine they would have laid down road salt up there. I will head out tomorrow and try to get some pictures. None of these darn things are even supposed to live here. Hopefully, my "quickie ID" was just plain wrong.

Thanks for this picture. I see innumberable amounts of pickleweed and dodder while birding in the San Francisco Bay marshes, yet I have never noticed it in bloom. Very delicate and attractive!

Salicornia is also a very common plant used in BC on fisheries habitat compensation projects.

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