Physiological and ecological warnings that dodders pose an exigent threat to farmlands in eastern Africa.
Invasive holoparasitic plants of the genus Cuscuta (dodder) threaten African ecosystems due to their rapid spread and attack on various host plant species. Most Cuscuta species cannot photosynthesize and hence rely on host plants for nourishment. After attachment through a peg-like organ called a haustorium, the parasites deprive hosts of water and nutrients, which negatively affects host growth and development. Despite their rapid spread in Africa, dodders have attracted limited research attention, although data on their taxonomy, host range, and epidemiology are critical for their management. Here, we combine taxonomy and phylogenetics to reveal the presence of field dodder (Cuscuta campestris) and C. kilimanjari (both either naturalized or endemic to East Africa), in addition to the introduction of the giant dodder (C. reflexa), a south Asian species, in continental Africa. These parasites have a wide host range, parasitizing species across 13 angiosperm orders. We evaluated the possibility of C. reflexa to expand this host range to tea (Camelia sinensis), coffee (Coffea arabica), and mango (Mangifera indica), crops of economic importance to Africa, for which haustorial formation and vascular-bundle connections in all three crops revealed successful parasitism. However, only mango mounted a successful postattachment resistance response. Furthermore, species distribution models predicted high habitat suitability for Cuscuta spp. across major tea- and coffee-growing regions of Eastern Africa, suggesting an imminent risk to these crops. Our findings provide relevant insights into a poorly understood threat to biodiversity and economic wellbeing in Eastern Africa, and provide critical information to guide development of management strategies to avert Cuscuta spp. spread.