Desert Mistletoe – Part I

Here in the desert we have a unique species of mistletoe called the desert mistletoe, Phoradendron californicum.  It is in a family closely related to the fragrant sandalwood.

There are many species of mistletoe around the world, parasitic and hemi-parisitic on a number of trees.    All mistletoe plants are toxic.    Almost all the berries are toxic.    The one exception is the Sonoran and Mojave desert mistletoe!   I wrote about foraging and using desert mistletoe berries for Savor the Southwest.

Desert mistletoe berries become blushed with a peachy color and translucent when they are ripe. Image courtesy R. Vanderhoff.

It’s 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.    In Latin “hemi” means half.    These mistletoes are half-parasitic.

In desert mistletoe, the parasitic half is the part that steals 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.

Image courtesy J. Pawek.

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 it’s host.    Desert mistletoe does minimal amount of damage, and thus lives with the host trees for many years.

Duskywings are very aptly named. They are not overly showy, but they are a delight to watch. Image courtesy B. Breckling.

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 is also the larval host plants for a number of lepidoptera (butterfly family), including a charming native species of skipper known as the duskywing.

Want to Attract Butterflies?

gardening-with-soule-books-buyMay I recommend my book?  Butterfly Gardening offers tips for adding butterfly plants to your landscape – plus offers an extensive list of trees, shrubs, perennials, and even some lovely vines that will feed the butterflies in your yard.

From the review:

“A great reference book – this is key to successful butterfly gardening in the Southwest.  The book’s author is Jacqueline Soule, a Tucson-based gardening expert. She knows this arid region inside and out, and she’s written several articles and books packed with her gardening advice.”

Note – I used to sell this book on that massive mega site, but it was very hard to dance with that elephant, so now I sell it via my book site – the Southwest Garden Guide.

Profits from the sale of this book go to the Horticulture Therapy non-profit Tierra del Sol InstituteBest of all – when you buy from me you get a signed copy!

soule-garden-successScience Nerd Notes

Technically the duskywings are skippers in the genus Erynnis in the family Hesperiidae.  Just like butterflies and moths, skippers are Lepidoptera, but are considered a different group than true butterflies.

The phainopepla love the mistletoe in my yard – and I love watching them! Image courtesy J. Schrenk.


Another Mistletoe Specialist

The phainopepla specializes in mistletoe berries.    Males look somewhat like a black cardinal — about the same size and with a crest of feathers.      Females are greyish brown with grey 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.

Phainopepla life is intertwined with mistletoe.    Males will locate a large clump and sing to attract a lady to their bountiful food area – ideal for feeding baby birds.    “Hey Lady, come see my patch” they cry.    Phainopepla require many large clumps to feed their young.    And they eat not just the berries but also many many “bugs.”    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 may weaken the tree slightly, but it attracts butterflies and unique insect-eating birds.    Plus it has many tiny, very fragrant flowers in late winter.  And don’t forget – humans can eat the berries too.

But since having desert mistletoe in their trees really bothers some people – what to do about it in your trees is covered in this post.

© Article copyright Jacqueline A. Soule. All rights reserved. You must ask permission to republish an entire blog post or article. Okay to use a short excerpt – but you must give proper credit to Gardening With Soule. You must include a link to the original post on our site. No stealing photos.

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