When Ms Yusuf Maluka, a smallholder farmer from Kosit village, Kadimukoli in Budaka district, first noticed yellowish spaghetti-like leafless vines hanging loosely on his fence some four years ago, he did not bother about it.
At that time, Maluka who was yet to understand the parasitic weed preserved it particularly on his fence confusing it for a flower.
Across Budaka district, a number of school girls reveal that the weed was partly spreading because school and village girls in the area have nicknamed it “lovers” miracle.
It is believed that when girls want to get into a relationship, they break off a piece of the field fodder on the fence, call out the name of a young man they are interested in and throw the parasite onto another plant; “if the parasite/weed grows there, the affection is mutual and will take place,”.
“We are told by herbalists to pluck a piece of this weed, then whisper the name of the boy you are interested in; ‘from today you’re mine alone till death do us part,’ to this plant and then throw it to another plant once it grows, the relationship will also blossom,” said Sarah Kataike, a student who declined to have her picture taken.
And because this seems a myth, efforts to get the source of this obvious lie did not yield any results as nobody would trace the origins of the claim.
The parasitic weed or Dodder has many other names that include love vine, knot weed, strangle weed, strangle vine, angel’s hair, gold-thread, devil’s ringlet, hell-bind, hair weed, devil’s hair, hail weed and witches’ shoelaces.
In many compounds, along the fences, many a people have preserved this weed, little knowing that it is a killer weed that can end up strangling their crops and even trees along the fences.
The weed, also known as Cuscuta japonica, whose origin has been traced to North America, is a parasitic plant; meaning that it draws nutrients from host plants and trees — suffocating them, sometimes to death.
According to science, the weed largely depends on sucking the sap of trees for survival, it is a true parasite that lacks the ability to make its own chlorophyll, so it attaches itself to other plants to steal theirs.
It begins life normally but not independently as it relies on its victim for survival and once it finds a victim, it attaches itself to the poor plant and digs into the host with tiny root-like structures for sucking moisture and nutrients from the host.
Many travelers along Mbale-Tirinyi road will now notice some trees and bushes with yellowish creepy plant canopy covering them and few people are aware that this is a parasitic invasive weed known as Cuscuta which is potentially threatening the survival of crops and biodiversity in Uganda.
And today it is clear that the parasitic weed [Dodder] is predominant near schools and on fences, mangoes, avocados, cassava, orange, tangerine and tamarind plants and which villagers say the parasite attacks any plant that comes into contact with just a single thread or powder of the parasite.
Mr Isaac Mayeku, an entomologist at Mbale district says the dodder builds a canopy on the host plant and casts thousands of tendrils to form a dense spectacle before it strangles it.
He says Dodder which goes by the local name yellow weed can be spread by humans, animals, birds, water, wind and other transmitters and it is also said that an inch of a dodder weed, once dropped at the bark of a tree or on the leaves can quickly grow and spread rapidly to even the neighbouring plants.
“Maybe because of the way it builds a canopy on its host plant and casts tendrils to form a dense spectacle that is why girls think that their relationships could also do the same when you mention to it the name of boy friend you need,” said Mr Maluka, who does not believe in this.
Mr Willy Ofwono Osinde, the Budaka district production and marketing officer consented the parasitic weed had invaded the district but that as a district they are trying to find ways of dealing with it.
An ASKIFAS powered by EDIS paper on Biology and Management of Dodder (Cuscuta spp.) in Ornamental Crop Production and Landscapes by Kaley Mierek & Chris Marble, Nathan Boyd, [https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/EP556] says that the dodder builds a canopy on the host plant and casts thousands of tendrils to form a dense spectacle before it strangles it, eventually killing it.
The paper adds that if not checked, the weed has the potential of causing serious ramifications on the food security in the country in the near future and that it is already affecting crops such tomatoes, sweet potatoes, coffee and potatoes.
According to agriculturists, the biggest fear is, if Cuscuta is not controlled, the country may see a 30 percent decline in food production within the next decade and that the challenge is now on the government to come in and act before the country is chocked by the parasitic weed that is fast spreading.
From a distance, the parasitic weed looks like a cob web or as if someone has thrown a yellow fishing net over the plant, for it has no roots but thrives on the water and food from the host for its survival.
According to farmers, the parasitic weed targets the hosts’ leaves, branches, and stems as an entangled, smothering cob web and when removed, the net like structure grows back very fast to engulf the host with the aim of killing it.
“The parasite only dies when the host is dead or destroyed,” said Mr Maluka, a farmer.
Ms Harriet Asekenye, the District Agricultural officer [Bulambuli] says that the dangerous invasive alien weed known as field dodder could be a serious menace to agriculture and biodiversity across Uganda and East Africa and reduce crop yields..
Scientists who have been studying the toxic weed for a decade in Africa estimates that over US$1.1 billion will be needed for research on how to completely eradicate the weed and to mobilise farmers and policy makers to tackle the scourge.
Dr. William Wogoire, the former director of National Coffee Research Institute in Kituza said some of the crops that are already under attack include mangoes, avocadoes, maize, beans, cassava, pawpaw, sweet potatoes and pumpkin. Others are Napier grass, guava, bananas. Most of these crops are very important to the livelihoods of farmers.
Dr Wogoire [rtd] explained that the weed is resilient to different climatic conditions and its seed can persist in dry soils for more than 10 years as it awaits a host.
“This weed is now found on a wide variety of hosts in Uganda namely crops in farms, bushy and waste places and forests virtually decimating them and it is also not uncommon to find it ravaging people’s live fences,” said Dr Wogoire..
Mr Maluka who last year lost acres of bananas, maize and beans to the weed says “I have tried different kinds of chemicals from local agrovets, but the weed has survived the onslaught, thriving and killing host plants,”
Dr Wogoire explained that the parasite is definitely far bigger than just a mere weeds, it’s a killer parasite whose impact is far-reaching and it is already causing havoc in Kenya and the Congo which has prompted them to act and find a lasting remedy.
“And my thinking is that instead of wasting money on carrying out researches in areas that others have already invested, we should just seek their guidance and then buy the drugs that other countries have founded to eliminate the weed,” said Dr Wogoire.
Ms Halima Namubiru, the Mbale district agricultural officer says that the weed largely depends on sucking the sap of trees for survival.
She adds that Dodder is a true parasite that lacks the ability to make its own chlorophyll, so it attaches itself to other plants to steal theirs and that it begins life normally but not independently as it relies on its victim for survival.
According to her, the weed is now found on a wide variety of hosts in Uganda namely crops in farms, bushy and waste places and forests virtually decimating them and it is also not uncommon to find it ravaging people’s live fences.
“And when it finds a victim, it attaches itself to the poor plant and digs into the host with tiny root-like structures for sucking moisture and nutrients from the host. It is very dangerous especially to crops,” said Ms Namubiru.
Ms Sarah Bisikwa, an environmentalist in Mbale says: “Increasing infestation of field dodder on farmlands has reduced [the] quantity of food produced and that this poses a challenge to a sustained food supply.
She added that the parasite makes a very thick blanket layer on top of the plant, blocks the leaves from having direct access to sun light, blocks the breathing system before knitting the leaves to fold and dry.
“And the parasite leaves the farmer with only three options, to either burn the tree, cut down all the branches or cut down the whole tree but either way, both options lead to the death of the tree,” said Ms Bisikwa, who doubles as Manafwa district senior environment officer
According to the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe), based in Kenya, it is projected that the threat of alien species in Sub-Saharan Africa will directly affect the attainment of three Sustainable Development Goals: SDG1 (no poverty) SDG2 (zero hunger) and SDG3 (good health and well-being).
The Ministry of Agriculture has made numerous promises to eradicate the weed and by the year 2020, they earmarked about Ug.Shs.5 billion to control the strange weeds that have invaded the country in the recent times.
The Director General of the National Agriculture Research Organisation Dr Ambrose Ogona while addressing the public on the threat assured them that the funds would be spent on conducting a countrywide survey and research programmes on the weeds.
It is now two years down the road and no action is forth coming yet the parasite continues spreading even to the natural forests and new varieties.
There is a general among the farmers that if Dodder/ Parasitic weed/ Cuscuta is not controlled, the country may see a 30 percent decline in food production within the next decade.
The challenge is now on the government to come in and act before the country is chocked by the parasitic weed that is fast spreading and a lot of money will be needed to research on how to manage the weed, sensitise farmers on how to deal with the ravaging weed.
And as a journalist, i believe that whoever invented this parasite, will soon come up with a very expensive proposal to remedy the problem; this is what we call exploitation and capitalism at its peak; they create a problem and then sell the solution very expensively.
According to scientists, the weed spreads mainly through contaminated crop seed, although vegetative spread is also possible.
They e explained that they have observed a huge impact on a wide range of plants and trees such as citrus, grevillea, euphorbia trees among many others and that the plant also affects crops such tomatoes, sweet potatoes, tea, and potatoes.
Dodder is classified as a summer annual. Upon germination in the spring or summer, seedlings have approximately 5 to 10 days to attach themselves to a nearby host plant. If they do not find a suitable host within this time, the seedlings will die, as they depend upon the host for survival.
Dodder is a parasitic plant that has a wide variety of host plants, including agricultural crops, ornamentals, weeds, and other plants. Dodder can be found in agricultural crops, fields, woodlands, landscapes, and other lo0cations where suitable hosts are growing.
How to fight Dodder in our farms, compounds
Agriculturists recommend that several post-emergence (POST) and pre-emergence (PRE) herbicides which are effective for dodder control/suppression and the common PRE herbicides (applied elsewhere include Kerb (pronamide), Treflan (trifluralin), and Prowl (pendimethalin). POST application (applied after dodder emergence) of Dacthal (DCPA), Scythe (pelargonic acid), Raptor (imazamox), Pursuit (imazethapyr), or Gramoxone (paraquat) have been found to be effective in dodder control/suppression.
Dr Wogoire adds that broadcast or selective (spot treatment) application of Roundup (glyphosate) has also been shown to provide good control of this parasite.
What to be done
-It is vital that the government mobilises policymakers, particularly parliamentarians and donors, to increase funding for agriculture and research on how to manage the weed among others.
-Sensitization on the control and management of the weed should be taken down to the school level and the national and to local farmers and bring on board NGOs in the sensitization through media campaign and public ‘barazas’.
-Equip agricultural officers with knowledge to train farmers on how to deal with the menace that the weed is causing while the media too, should do enough to sensitise households on the dangers posed by the dodder weed.
-It is true that farmers are using manual methods of control which include uprooting infested plants and burning them but many of them should be made to understand the weed, they confuse for an ornamental plant and end up preserving it particularly on their fences! -Farmers also need to be sentitised against the popular myth that the weed comes with evil spirits and the general consensus should be the spread of Dodder/Cuscuta must be fought from all fronts.