Dodder vine (Cuscuta pentagona)

Dodder vine

Dodder vine is an amazing plant, it is orange rather than green due to its lack of chlorophyl, it can’t make its own food.

Instead the dodder vine hatches in the spring from a seed and very slowly moves in a circle searching the air for beta-myrcene a volatile chemical emitted into the air by tomatoes and other plants. When it picks up the scent of beta-myrcene it grows in the direction of the odor until it finds the plant emitting it.

Once it reaches the plant it tightly winds itself around the plant, sinking roots into the host plant. The roots then suck up the juices in the host plant to feed itself. The host plant will then wilt and die.

Dodder vine also appears to exchange RNA with the host plant. Whether this is a way of exchanging information with the host plant or a way to reprogram it, much the way viruses reprogram our DNA is unknown.

Plants use RNA as a way to send messages through out the plant. When a dodder vine attacks a plant some of the plant’s RNA gets sucked up by the dodder vine. The dodder vine can then read the RNA to better evaluate how to attack the host.

Professor Neelima Sinha and colleagues at the UC Davis Section of Plant Biology studied dodder vines growing on tomato plants in the lab. They found that RNA molecules from the host could be found in the dodder up to a foot (30 cm) from the point where the parasite had plumbed itself into the host.

Plants often use small RNA molecules as messengers between different parts of the plant. In a paper published in Science in 2001, Sinha’s group showed that RNA could travel from a graft into the rest of the plant and affect leaf shape. Plants can also use specific RNAs to fight off viruses. . . [ read more Plant Parasite Wiretaps Host ]

Dodder is a member of the Morning Glory family.

It has very tiny leaves that are more like scales than leaves and tiny white flowers.

It is considered an invasive plant and a threat to the local ecology in Texas.

A new method of plant communication?
Genomic-scale exchange of mRNA between a parasitic plant and its host
YouTube video of dodder vine locating and reaching for a tomato plant
Dodder management guide lines

String of Pearls ( Asteraceae Senecio rowleyanus)

This is the first String of Pearls I’ve owned in a very long time. The flowers caught my eye, it’s the first one I’d seen in flower. Flowering takes place in the winter. The flowers have a sweet cinnamon scent.

This makes a great house plant despite liking lots of light. The brighter the window the better, mine is in direct afternoon sun and very happy. When the light is right the plant will flower in the winter and the pearls will be close together on the strand, too little light and you’ll see larger gaps between the pearls (leaves).

They are a succulent so be careful not to over water them, especially in the winter months. Treat it as you would a cactus only watering it when the top of the soil is very dry.

It is fairly hardy temperature wise and can handle temperatures occasionally down to 10’F, far lower than any indoor location is likely to get.

Every part of this plant is toxic.

It is a vine, so it is easy to make plants to share, just snip off a bit of a strand, remove pearls so that three or more nodes can be placed in soil and keep moist until it roots. Because it is a succulent let the cuttings dry over night before planting.

The strings will grow 2′-3′ easily and if happy 6′-8′, a bit of trimming will keep the plant lush and prevent it from getting too stringy.

This plant does well in a cactus potting mix.

Native to South Africa

Asteraceae is the sunflower/aster family of plants

Bric brac vine aka zigzag cactus (Cryptocereus anthonyanus )

I picked this up a year ago May at Smith and Hawkins. It is a fast grower and sold often as a hanging plant. It grew, and it grew and was too large to bring inside come winter so I left it to fend for itself. It survived the winter.

Then on the garden club garden tour I saw one potted up and growing up a trellis. How cool thought I. So I cut a branch off the monstrosity and planted it near the front door. As you can see it’s already growing strong a couple of months later. It also found the garage wall and has started its climb. I’m hoping it’ll cover a good portion of the wall before long.

I’ve had this in full sun and just afternoon sun. It’s thrived in both locations. I’ve totally ignored it in the winter and forgot to water it, still it grew.

It will survive a mild Houston winter, it did not survive the several hard frosts we had last winter. 40’F is the lowest suggested temperatures.

It is rumored to flower, I’ve yet to see one. Flowers will open only at night, for one night, and are very fragrant.

It is an epiphytic plant, you can grow it in soil or in orchid bark, use which ever pleases you. In its natural habitat it grows on trees with aerial roots. I haven’t tried that yet.

It can be trained up something or allowed to hang down something, which ever pleases you.

Propagation is easy, cut off about 4″ of a branch and stick in in some dirt.

So far I’ve not had a single problem with this plant. It’s a great climber for a cactus garden.


It is a fast grower and should fill this basket in no time. One branch broke off and we have it rooting in another pot. To propagate, take a small piece of stem, place it in soil, keep moist until you see new growth.

This plant loves light, put it in your brightest window. Keep the soil moist, but not wet.

Chestnut vine aka Tetrastigma voinieranum

How can you not love a plant with a name like tetrastigma? Tetra refers to the 5 fingered leaves, the stigma I’m sure time will tell.

I first saw this plant growing in a nursery greenhouse back in Massachusetts. It grew all along the ceiling and had the most wonderful 2′ long tendrils that reached down as if to nab you.

The leaves are dark green and shiny on top, and soft and fuzzy underneath. Leaf size I’m told can reach 12″, I’ve never seen it more than 4″.

This vine is from Laos. It will grow a foot or more per month so be brave with the pruning shears. This picture is just a few days after we brought it home. It’s been a week now and we have 4 vines that have about 4″ of new growth each. It has wonderful long tendrils that hang down to grasp trees so it can climb on them.

I tried growing it as a house plant with little success. It just couldn’t handle the low humidity in the house.

In a last ditch attempt to save it I placed it outside last fall. And while it hibernated and dropped some leaves over the winter, it did come through and started to grow again the beginning of March.

I have one planted in shade with little dappled sun, and one in dappled sun for most of the afternoon. Both are planted in very dry areas of the garden, both are happy. All accounts report this plant loves frequent watering so it should do well in damper areas as well.

These plants are heavy feeders, notice the discoloration on the leaves? Despite frequent feedings they are begging for more.

Keep the soil moist, drought tolerant when established but just barely. New leaves will fall off if the soil gets dry.

Will die back to the ground in cold winters. One of two just re-appeared the first week of April.

This plant is native to Vietnam.

The clear beads you see on the underside of the leaves are secretions from the plant, not an infestation.

Like most vines, propagation is by cutting. The nursery where I originally purchased this plant told me that they had very limited success with cuttings and propagation. I haven’t tried yet, the plants are not large enough to take cuttings.

There is little information on this plant in my books, as I learn more I’ll post it.

Note: did not survive heat ( 3 months 100’F plus ) and drought of the summer of 2011

Dutchman’s Pipe ( Aristolochia grandiflora )

I planted this vine with the greatest of hopes. It grew, and grew and every week I beat it back. Nary a single flower. Tiring of beating the vine back, I cut it down.
Fast grower! Can easily reach 20′ tall in two summers.

Grows best in moist woodland areas, but must have several hours of sun for blooming.

Blooms appear early summer, flowers can be anywhere from 8″ to 20″ on older vines.

This is one of the few vines that is easier to grow from seed than from cuttings.

Aristolochia grandiflora is originally from Central America, there are about 350 species worldwide. Some grow in tropical areas others in temperate forests.

Highly toxic plant – do not ingest.

Spider mites may attack this plant.

This is an interesting plant in that its flowers give off a scent to attract flie. Flies fly into the flower and it traps them overnight. There are hairs inside the flower that point in making it a one way trip down the narrow column to the round base. The flies fly around inside the flower getting totally covered in pollen. In the morning the flower relaxes allowing the pollen covered fly to escape and pollinate another flower.

Swallowtail and birdwing butterfly caterpillars use this as a food source. They absorb the toxins making them toxic to birds that would eat them. Some species of this plant are toxic to butterflies and they can get confused and lay eggs on the wrong species of Aristolochia ( elegans ). So know your species before you plant it.

Time to plant the tomato seeds

Here in Houston we have two tomato growing times. One starts in mid Feb. and ends when the lows for the day are higher than 70’F, one starts mid Aug. and goes until the nights regularly get into the 50’s.

So I went looking for tomato plants last week but none were to be found. Local mom and pop nurseries have tomato plants the big box stores don’t get it and had none. I settled for some ‘Better Boy’ seeds. They have sprouted and I’m proud to say I’ve remembered to water them daily.

I was talking to Nancy at ‘My Garden Spot’ and she told me she had been saving the seeds from the heirloom tomatoes that you find in the supermarket. I don’t know why that thought never crossed my mind, but it hadn’t. I picked up some heirloom tomatoes and will set aside some seeds this week.

To use the seeds from the heirloom tomatoes, save a few on a paper towel and let them dry out for about a week. Then plant as usual.  I tried this last fall and the plants were much sturdier and better producing than the plants I had purchased at the store.

Later I learned on Twitter from Plan Garden that tomato seeds should be fermented first. Purchase your heirloom tomatoes and let them turn to mush on your counter before removing the seeds. This is supposed to help with germination, and is reported to kill disease that may be present in the tomatoes and strengthen the seeds.

I’m told they will not germinate otherwise, but mine did fine with out fermenting last fall. So try it either way or both ways. I did some poking around and most of the old school gardeners recommend fermenting your tomatoes before removing seeds.

You’ll want to put your fall tomato plants in pots or some sheltered section of the garden. There are always a few unexpected cool days early on.

I also only filled the pots half to three quarters full with dirt. Tomatoes are a vine and benefit from having the bottom covered with dirt as they grow.

This’ll be my first fall crop down here. I’m pleased with the summer crop progress over earlier crops so I have great hopes for these guys.

Nancy also tells me there tend to be less bugs and other problems with her fall crops.

So start your fall tomatoes!


Tomatoes have turned out to be one of my biggest challenges in Houston. In New England you bought your tomato plants and stuffed them in the ground on Memorial Day. You might toss down a handful of fertilizer at that time. Then in August you had 8′ tall plants with a bushel full of tomatoes each.

It doesn’t work that way down here. Which is bad. It is so hot down here all the market tomatoes have been refrigerated somewhere along the way and once you refrigerate a tomato you may as well throw it out. It has no flavor after that.

You have two growing seasons for tomatoes in Houston. The first batch goes in Mid March and is done once night time lows stay above 70’F usually late June or early July. The second batch goes in mid August and goes until nights stay down under 50’F. Tomatoes are picky about putting out fruit. You need low temperatures above 50’F and below 70’F for tomatoes to make tomatoes.

More importantly tomatoes do not like clay soil. Not even a little. They will grow but not well and seem to settle in to the spot where you don’t pull them out because they look like there is hope but they never do better than that. You will need to put them in a raised bed or in large pots.

Tomatoes are heavy feeders which is also a challenge in Houston. They need a steady supply of fertilizer. Too much and you will have gorgeous plants with no tomatoes, too little and you’ll have small scraggly looking plants with no tomatoes.

My best success so far has been to pot up tomato plants in large pots. I purchase a bag of fertilized potting soil for each plant and toss in a handful ( 1/4 cup ) of time released fertilizer. Then as your tomato plants grow use a liquid fertilizer that you can spray on the leaves as well as into the soil. When you plant your tomato bury it deep. Tomatoes are vines and will easily root all along the stem that is below the soil line.

Tomatoes need full sun, even here. If you do not give them full sun they will not be able to reach full growth in the short growing seasons we have.

Watering should be steady. Too much water and your tomatoes will split.

Tomatoes are the number one method to get nematodes in your garden. Check the roots when planting them and do not plant any with swollen roots or bumps on their roots. Nematodes are permanent.

Tomatoes are self pollinating. The flowers close and each flower pollinates itself. Feel free to give your plants a little shake to help if it hasn’t been windy.

The Master Gardener’s Handbook recommends the following varieties: Bingo, Carnival, Heatwave, Celebrity, Merced, Sunmaster, and Cherry tomatoes Small Fry and Red Cherry.

I was happy with the Big Boys I planted this summer.

Problems you might have:
Fusarium wilt: The plant is slow growing and wilts. Leaves yellow then brown and there is no fruit. The only way to know for sure is to kill the plant and do an autopsy. If you slice up the stem you will see brown streaks. There is nothing you can do. Future plants planted in the same area will also be infected Try pots or a raised bed somewhere else.

Lack of nitrogen: Bottom leaves are yellow with green veins, grow is slow. New leaves are tiny. Fertilize.

Lack of potassium: Slow growth and small brown spots appear on the leaves. Leaf edges turn yellow and leaves curl down. Fertilize.

Leaf miner: White squiggles appear on the tomato leaves. Remove all leaves that are marked. Apply an appropriate pesticide.

White flies: Wiggle plant and lots of them will fly off. Try a yellow sticky trap out in the garden. There’s not much that works on these guys.

Horn worm: Man these guys are big and ugly! They are exactly the same color as your green tomato. The tomatoes look like some large critter has taken a bite out of them. I pull them off and kill them.

No tomatoes: Too much fertilizer, too little sun, temperatures at night below 50’F or above 70’F.

Tomatoes have cracks in skin: caused by uneven watering.

Blossom end rot: The tomato rots on the bottom, usually from too much water or too much fertilizer or from a lack of calcium in the soil. Add calcium chloride 4 tablespoons per gallon of water.

Brown spots on leaves after a rain: Ozone damage, when the rain comes from the southeast part of the city it may bring ozone with it. The ozone damages tomatoes and peanut plants. While it looks bad your tomatoes should be fine.

More information:
Houston Vegetable Garden Blog
Cover your tomatoes for healthier, prettier produce and longer growing seasons