A California native plant that has rapidly spread throughout an area of the Ballona Wetlands has become a point of contention in the continuing debate over what constitutes proper and beneficial restoration of the ecological preserve between two Playa del Rey organizations.

A biologist at the Friends of the Ballona Wetlands says the planting of saltmarsh dodder by the Ballona Institute has the potential to cause harm in the state-owned wetlands off Culver Boulevard in Playa del Rey, where it has been found eradicating the native jaumea (jaumea carnosa) plants.

Saltmarsh dodder (Cuscuta salian) is a parasitic vine that wraps itself around a host plant and takes its nutrients and water. It spreads from host to host, curling its orange stems around its hosts before moving on to the next plant.

“In a salt marsh ecosystem that has regular tidal flooding, the spread of salt marsh dodder is limited by open spaces and mud flats and by species resistant to its attack,” Dr. Edith Read, a biologist with the wetlands group, wrote on Ballona Blog, a website published by her organization June 14th. “In these natural systems, dodder adds to biodiversity but does not take over. It adds to the liveliness of the party but does not become too obnoxious.

“But until the Ballona salt marsh is restored, natural processes that keep one species from taking over will not happen,” Read added. “Current evidence shows that this dodder is killing all of the jaumea where it was introduced and is continuing to spread, seeking more host plants.”

In an interview shortly after her comments were posted, Read said the saltmarsh dodder had been introduced prematurely to other parts of the preserve west of Culver Boulevard by Robert “Roy” van de Hoek of the Ballona Institute.

“In a natural functioning ecosystem it would have been fine,” the biologist explained.

According to Read, who manages the Ballona Freshwater Marsh at Playa Vista, the wetlands where the saltmarsh dodder was planted by van de Hoek is destroying not only jaumea but also pickleweed, another native Ballona plant species.

Van de Hoek admits to bringing the parasite to the wetlands in 2003. He says that he transported the dodder from Malibu Lagoon because there was a massive dredging planned there and the plant would soon be extinct in Los Angeles County, in addition to its restorative qualities.

“It needed to be salvaged and rescued, so now we have it in two places where it occurs,” van de Hoek said. “If you can restore and recover a species back to an ecosystem where it once was, that’s a good reason to have it here.”

He disputes Read’s assertion that the parasite will complicate restoration efforts by state officials by allowing non-native plants and weeds to grow in the place of jaumea and pickleweed.

“My studies at Malibu Lagoon, as well as at the Carpentaria saltmarsh indicate that’s not what happens,” Van de Hoek said. “The scientific studies show that the salt marsh dodder alternates its locations and parasitizes one area, then moves to another area and leaves the first area alone.”

William Abbott, a botanist at the Carpentaria saltmarsh, declined to comment on the effects that saltmarsh dodder can have on an ecosystem. He referred calls to Jacqueline Bowland Worden of Bowland & Associates, a biological and environmental consulting firm in Ventura that has done consulting work for the Carpentaria marsh.

Borden did not respond to e-mail requests for comment for this story.

Van de Hoek, who refers to a pickleweed as pickle plant, says it and the jaumea, a Ballona wildflower, do eventually grow back.

While both environmental organizations are active in their quest to see the wetlands revitalized to its fullest potential, they have not always been in agreement on how to accomplish that goal. They have taken opposite positions on the Playa Vista development as well as how the state Department of Fish and Game, the agency that manages the wetlands, should supervise the planned restoration of the ecological reserve.

Read says reduced tidal flow into the wetlands, coupled with the fact that non-native plants grow in the place of natives after the saltmarsh dodder takes it over has the potential to create “a restoration train wreck.”

A member of the Santa Monica Restoration Commission also takes the position that if the wetlands were healthier, the dodder would be a welcome sight.

“But right now, we don’t have the tidal flows in our ecosystem,” said Sean Bergquist, the commission’s director of watershed programs. “saltmarsh dodders (kills) jamea, which we don’t have a lot of at Ballona, and we don’t have the native plant seed source to fill in these voids.”

The green parasite can be seen in several patches near Area B, off Culver Boulevard in Playa del Rey. Near the saltmarsh dodder are also jaumea and pickleweed plants, as well as patches of weeds near the higher grounds of the ecological preserve.

Van de Hoek said the dodder also helps restore other components of the ecosystem.

“We’re bringing back many more bugs, butterflies and bees in greater numbers, because the saltmarsh dodder has light flowers that attract insects because of the sugar, nectar and pollen in the flowers,” he asserted. “And then you have predators of the bees and butterflies that are birds, and in some cases reptiles feed on the insects’ eggs.

“That increases biodiversity of the ecosystem,” the biologist continued. “We have a number of foodchains going on.”

Van de Hoek said he feels that it is an overreaction to suggest that the parasite is creating more problems than it is solving in the wetlands.

“(The Friends of the Ballona Wetlands) should be joyous about this, just as they are over the least Bell’s vireo and the Orcutt’s Yellow Pincushion returning to Ballona,” he said.

Van de Hoek was referring to two recent discoveries of two threatened species this year that have scientists, conservationists and nature lovers excited about the possibilities of what can transpire when the ecological preserve is rehabilitated.

The Argonaut first reported the discovery of several patches of rare Orcutt’s Yellow Pincushions near the Marina Peninsula in March, not far from the Grand Lagoon restoration project near Venice. The yellow succulents were discovered by van de Hoek and Marcia Hanscom, the Ballona Institute’s other co-director, during a Los Angeles city beautification project that would have unearthed and possibly destroyed the rare flower had they not been noticed.

The least Bell’s vireo, an endangered bird that had been seen on previous occasions near the Ballona Wetlands, has built one nest near the freshwater marsh in Playa Vista and another west of Lincoln Boulevard in the state-owned wetlands.

“You can say, in a qualitative way, that by us preventing the elimination and removal of (the Orcutt’s Yellow), that we’re making a step that doesn’t have to happen in the future to bring it back,” he said. “We reintroduced it back into people and society’s consciousness.”

Pressed for further clarification, the Ballona Institute’s co-director expanded on his earlier statements.

“There’s a whole bunch of overlap, but it is clearly different,” he conceded. “But we’re dealing with a rare plant, the saltmarsh dodder.”

Read says the planned restoration of the wetlands, which she thinks could be years away, might be compromised if the salt marsh dodder continues to spread.

“My concern is that when restoration does take place, we will have lost a lot of the pickleweed,” she said. “If (the state government) would proceed much quicker, it could offset any damage that has been done.”

Van de Hoek views his planting of the saltmarsh dodder as a continuation of the efforts to revitalize the ecological preserve. “This is restoration of the wetlands and the salt marsh area, and its in full swing,” he said.

Fish and Game officials did not return calls for comment.