Desert Mistletoe Attracts Wildlife

There are many species of mistletoe around the world, found on a number of trees. Many people mistakenly think they have to get rid of mistletoe plants, but they shouldn’t — at least in the Southwest. Desert mistletoe attracts native birds and butterflies.

All mistletoe plants are toxic. The berries of almost all mistletoe species are toxic. The one exception is the mistletoe of the Sonoran and Mojave deserts, Phoradendron californicum, also called desert mistletoe. Interestingly, this unique genus is a distant relative of sandalwood.

Most of the mistletoe in the world is toxic to humans. This species grows in oak trees and is popular at Christmas.
Desert Mistletoe Is a Hemi

Technically, desert mistletoe is “hemi-parasitic.” No, it isn’t packing an awesome engine under the hood. We are talking about plants, so it’s a Latin term. “Hemi” means half; they are half parasitic.

In desert mistletoes, the parasitic half is the part that gets water. Rather than dirtying their roots by growing in soil, they let someone else do the hard work. Mistletoes grow their roots (termed haustoria) into the water-conducting tissue of a tree and steal all the water they need. With ample water, mistletoe then do their own photosynthesis and make their own sugars. Basically, they work for a living, but they live in someone else’s house and don’t pay rent.

Desert mistletoe differs from other species in that it has tiny, tiny leaves. Also,the fruit is edible – but be sure of your ID before you eat! Photo courtesy of Keir Morse.
Helpful Hemi-Parasite

Many people try to eradicate desert mistletoe, thinking it is harming the tree. Mistletoe would be a poor parasite if it killed its host. Desert mistletoe does minimal amounts of damage, and thus lives with the host trees for many years. In fact, many mistletoes (not just desert mistletoe), help their host trees by attracting insect-eating birds that help keep trees free of insect pests. Desert mistletoe also is a larval host plant for a number of butterflies and moths, including the buckthorn duskywing.

When trees are leafless, the number of mistletoe plants in a single tree might be startling. Remember, it’s a poor parasite that kills its host. Photo courtesy of Wilson.
Mistletoe Specialist

The Phainopepla specializes in mistletoe berries. Male birds look somewhat like a black cardinal — about the same size and with a crest of feathers. Females are grayish-brown with gray wing patches. They have reddish eyes. Distinctive white wing patches and dipping flight also help identify the Phainopepla, a member of the silky flycatcher family.

The Phainopepla relies on mistletoe berries to nurture its young.

Phainopepla life is intertwined with mistletoe. Male birds will locate a large clump and sing to attract a lady to their bountiful nesting area. They require many large clumps to feed their young. These birds eat thousands of bugs and berries every year.

Mistletoe Control

When asked what to do about mistletoe, my answer is, “Why do anything at all?” It is part of the native desert environment. It might weaken a tree slightly, but it attracts insect-eating birds and butterflies. Plus it has many tiny, very fragrant flowers in winter.

Tiny fragrant flowers appear in winter. Photo courtesy of Keir Morse.

If you really take exception to the mistletoe in your trees, you have a massive amount of work ahead of you. There are no quick solutions. Any poisons applied to the mistletoe also affect the host tree, so those are not an option.

You need to catch young mistletoe plants when they are tiny and remove them by hand. Since the haustoria can extend quite a long way inside an infested branch, cutting the branch once the clump of mistletoe is large is not a solution. Mistletoe will simply sprout again.

Repeated stripping of all the mistletoe stems eventually weakens the mistletoe to the point that it is unable to grow back. This can take a long time — years, even.

One solution I have read about, but never seen tried, is done in fall or early winter. Strip off all the mistletoe stems, then cover over the area-plus well to either side with heavy black plastic. Fasten securely and leave it in place for three to five months. The re-sprouting mistletoe stems will be in the dark and starve to death. Do not do this in summer, because you would sun-scald the tree.

Most desert legumes have a mistletoe or two growing in them, like this mesquite tree. Photo courtesy of R. Spellenberg.
Mistletoe Use

Desert mistletoe is a native plant, with charming birds and butterflies that rely on it for food. Mistletoe can be used as a dye, producing beige to bright gold color, depending on the mordant. Speaking of gold, mistletoe is currently being investigated for anti-tumor properties. If it is determined to be a viable drug, you might later kick yourself for killing a golden goose. Pacific yew bark, a source of anti-cancer taxol, sold for dollars a pound. You might have a gold mine in your tree!

Come see me at the Southwest Festival of the Written Word in Silver City, New Mexico the first weekend in October, 2019.  More on their website.

If you live in Southeastern Arizona, please come to one of my free lectures at the Pima County Library. After each event I will be signing copies of my books, including “Month-by-Month Guide to Gardening in Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada” (Cool Springs Press). Note –  this is an Amazon link and if you buy the book we will get a few pennies.

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