Desert Mistletoe

Desert Mistletoe clumps in Ironwood Tree

We think of mistletoe as having holly-like leaves and hung with red ribbon in doorways at the holidays.

Not like that, Desert Mistletoe is one of 1000 species of mistletoe that grow worldwide. Its leaves have shriveled over eons of arid life, to mere scales on jointed twigs.  The flowers are fragrant, but have no petals, and bloom in the winter.

This plant is a parasite, it inserts rootlike haustoria under the thin bark of desert legume trees and siphons off the water and nutrients that it needs to survive. It takes 2-3 years to get established and another year of growth before fruiting. Desert Mistletoe does carry on photosynthesis, and as a perennial comes back strong every spring, living on its host for 60-70 years.

The berries are juicy and sticky, ensuring that birds carry the seeds on their beaks to nearby branches where they rub them off and the seeds stick, waiting to sprout.  The mistletoes hosted by ironwood, mesquite and acacia grow sweet berries. Indigenous peoples made a nutritious pudding of them, but mistletoe berries from plants growing on paloverde and buckthorn are bitter, inedible. 

Phainopepla, Cactus Wren, Curve-billed Thrasher and Hooded Orioles eat the berries, and others such as Black-tailed Gnatcatcher and Pyrrhuloxia nest amidst the treetop clumps of stems.  A desert tree may tolerate the growth of several mistletoes, as the species have acclimated to each other over the eons and learned a way they both could survive. 

Growing down lower in tree
Yellow blooms starting to show February 14
Spiny leaves and yellow flowers March 24

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