Rain brings life: demonic threads

This post is also available in: Dutch.

The rainy season in Curacao is a wonderful time, especially for those not familiar with the semi-arid character of the island. Lots of tourists return to their country of origin with the idea that there is nothing going on in nature on that dry and barren Curacao. When they share experiences with others who have seen orchids and waterfalls, they are truely baffled. Even nature lovers, those who are frequent visitors to the natural places, in general encounter something new every time, something they have never seen before. The reputation of some of these miracles of the rainy season is pretty bad, however, and these are aggressively removed from gardens the moment they pop up. Parasites are not a crowd pleaser.

Overview of a bush covered with Hilu di Diabel.

Parasites

Blood suckers, stingers, murderers, wretches. These are all words that are used for parasites, both for those belonging to the fauna as well as the flora. During the rainy season, mosquitoes are the most “intrusive” parasites on the island. But also in the world of plants are plants that enjoy feasting on other plants. Parasitism is a natural relationship in which one species benefits from another species, and in which the victim is negatively affected, might get sick or might even die. It is a natural method of keeping population sizes in check, a kind of natural regulation. Parasites, both in the animal and plant kingdoms, occur all over the world, even on Curacao. The most illustrious parasitic plant on the island has been aptly named Devil’s hair, but is generally known as Dodder (Cuscuta spp.). In papiamentu known as Hilu di Diabel or Aletria di mondi.

Hilu di Diabel, demonic threads

The Hilu di Diabel is easy to recognize. If you encounter a shrub covered by long orange-yellow tentacle-like threads, then you have localized this plant. The plants are very special, because they have no leaves. What originally used to be leaves have been reduced to scales that are hardly visible. If you study this plant closely you’ll notice that it lacks the green color which is a characteristic of plants in general. A clear sign that the plant contains no chloroplasts consisting of the miracle substance chlorophyll. Chloroplasts are the energy factories needed by the plant to survive. These make sure that, fueled by sunlight, water and carbon dioxide are combined into sugars and starches, the food that the plant needs to grow, create new leaves, and reproduce by means of flowers and seeds. In the absence of chloroplasts, and thus the ability to produce your own food, there must be another solution in order to survive. Such a solution is parasitism, draining the food from other plants.

Close-up picture of a Hilu di Diabel with buds and flowers. Note the location of the flower clusters in the axils of the branches.

And that is exactly what the Hilu di Diabel does. From its stems grow small, strategically placed rootlets which penetrate into the bark of the stems of bushes. These penetrate into the transport vessels of the victim through which the rich juices are transported to the roots and other locations where they are stored for hard times. The roots of the Hilu di Diabel then suck them up and send them to the rest of the parasitic plant where they are used for growth and reproduction. The plant can grow so large and spread so extensively that the victim dies. Usually the Hilu di Diabel already inserted its rootlets in the stem of a neighboring plant and thus lives on. If this is not the case, and the plant can no longer receive nutrients, it also dies. Meanwhile, the plant has already distributed thousands of seeds.
The many roots that the plant inserted into the host make it virtually impossible to remove the plant. Almost always some rootlets are left behind which will then grow into a complete plant again.

Close-up picture of the flowers of a Hilu di Diabel.

Adhesive seed

On closer inspection of the plant you’ll see that it produces small white flowers in clusters or bunches together. The seeds are sticky and stick easily to beaks and feet of birds or other animals that might touch the plant. In this way the plant spreads itself all over the island.

A plant with variations

All over the world Hilu di Diabel-like plants occur. In between 100 and 170 species have been identified that are not only yellow, but can also be orange, pink and red in color. Even on Curacao three different species occur, but these are so similar in appearance that they hardly can be told apart.
Interestingly, the plant is rarely spotted in the dry season. Only during the rainy season its orange cover is apparent. The plant clearly benefits from the period during which the plant juices of its host flow freely. The remainder of the year it stays dormant.

Michelle da Costa Gomez

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