Desert Mistletoe in Your Trees

There are many species of mistletoe around the world, parasitic and hemi-parasitic on a number of trees. All mistletoe plants are toxic. Almost all mistletoe berries are toxic. The one exception is the Sonoran and Mojave desert mistletoe, Phoradendron californicum, also called desert mistletoe. Interestingly, this unique genus is a distant relative of sandal wood.

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.

Phorodendron californicum on a dormant acacia tree. Photo courtesy J. Pawek.

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, these plants 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 any rent.

Helpful Hemi-Parasite

Many people try to eradicate desert mistletoe, thinking it is harming the tree. This 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. In fact, many mistletoes 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 butterflies and moths, including the charming meridian duskywing (Erynnis meridianus).

Phainopepla nitens. Common name is phainopepla or capulinero negro. Photo courtesy of T. Lebgue.

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. In February, 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 lots and lots of insects. 

Desert mistletoe has very tiny very fragrant flowers in winter. Photo courtesy S. Matson.

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 winter.

But since mistletoe in their trees really bothers some people – what to do about it in your trees will be covered in the next post.



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More about overall care of your land and landscape in this book: Month by Month Gardening for Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico (Cool Springs Press).  This link is to Amazon and if you buy the book there the Horticulture Therapy non-profit Tierra del Sol Institute will get a few pennies – at no extra cost to you.

© 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.

Cover image: Phainopepla male, courtesy who explicitly releases to public domain

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