Desert Mistletoe – Part II

Last week, I started this series about desert mistletoe, to discuss what you might do about it in your trees.

Not a Bad Thing

Some people try to eradicate desert mistletoe, thinking it is harming the tree.    It be a poor parasite if it killed it’s host.    Yes, it does some harm, but it is a limited amount of harm.  Thus lives with the host trees for many years.

Desert Mistletoe Provides

In that previous post I discussed the desert mistletoe (Phoradendron californicum) and how it is part of a healthy desert ecosystem. It provides food for the phainopepla – a unique bird only found in the Southwest.

It also provides food for humans – but only the berries!    The Native tribes commonly ate desert mistletoe berries – right off the tree or pounded into a kind of cake. More about eating the berries on Savor the Southwest. 

Edible or not, some people are simply entirely bugged by seeing mistletoe in their trees and want to get rid of it.

Too smart to destroy the house it lives in! There may be many mistletoe clumps in this tree, but they don’t want to destroy the tree, and it continues to survive out in the wild. Image courtesy Z. Akulova.

Consider This

But why not look at it from a tree’s perspective? Desert trees and desert mistletoe have been living together for centuries. The tree puts up with the mistletoe (which is only a hemi-parasite, not a full blown thief). The mistletoe attracts insect eating birds in the silky flycatcher family, and the birds help keep insect pests off the trees. Everybody wins something.

Male phainopepla. Image courtesy J. Schrenk.

Personally, I do not visit a friend in their own home and start rearranging their furniture. In a sense, when you decide to try get rid of the mistletoe, that is what you are doing.  Note that I said “try.” It is harder than you think.

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.    Yes, it may weaken the tree slightly, but if the tree is in your yard, you can help the tree by giving it extra water.    Still looking to eradicate?

Not One and Done

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

1887 drawing by Sachs of mistletoe in a tree. Investigated with a state-of-the-art high-powered, 10X lens. We now know those haustoria (“e” in this drawing) are far longer than can be seen with a 10X lens. Image in the public domain.

Mistletoe Biology

Mistletoe does it’s own photosynthesis and makes it’s own food with water it takes from the tree it is growing on. But it does not have roots. It has “haustoria.” In the case of mistletoe, the haustoria are specialized stem tissues that can penetrate the water carrying vessels inside the tree trunks and branches. The haustoria grow a long distance within the water transport tissues. By the time you see one tiny sprig of mistletoe growing, the haustoria may be three feet long. It can grow new sprigs from any where along that haustoria. Simply cutting off the spot you see will not get rid of the internal structures.

Even if you cut off this entire branch – the chances are good that the haustoria are in the tree trunk and will simply emerge somewhere else on the tree.

Keep After it

Since the haustoria can extend quite a long way inside a branch, cutting the branch once the clump of mistletoe is large is not a solution.   You need to catch young mistletoe plants when they are tiny and remove them by hand.    Since the mistletoe will simply sprout again, you need to go out once a week and remove the tiny sprouts. Since they are only taking water from the tree, getting rid of any green photosynthesizing parts will eventually make it run out of energy to resprout.

Repeated stripping off of all the desert mistletoe stems eventually weakens the mistletoe to the point that it is unable to grow back.    This can take a long time.    Years and years even.  Ask my brother.  He’s ban at it on this one tree for over a decade.

Since many desert trees are winter deciduous, you could consider the fact that the mistletoe adds a note of interest to the winter landscape. Image courtesy J. Schrenk.


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 of tree – plus well to either side of the former clump – 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.

Fragrant flowers! Image courtesy S. Matson

Mistletoe Uses

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

Your yard your choices.

Me, I like the fragrance of the blooms in January when little else is in flower.

Other Useful Desert Plants

This book features 25 native plants and 25 European introductions.

soule-kino-southwestThe last few copies of this out-of-print award winning Southwestern book are now for sale. Father Kino’s Herbs: Growing and Using Them Today   The review says:  “Award-winning garden writer Dr. Jacqueline A. Soule has pulled together a fascinating book on the life of Father Eusebio Francisco Kino and some of the plants that he brought to Southern Arizona and northwestern Sonora, and area called the Pimeria Alta.”

A steal at only $22!  This link is to our sales site. The profits from the sale go to the Arizona-based Horticulture Therapy non-profit Tierra del Sol Institute.

© 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. You must include a link to the original post on our site. No stealing photos.

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