Desert Mistletoe in Your Trees- Part II

DeseMany 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.

Desert Mistletoe Provides Food

In the 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 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.

This desert mistletoe did not harm the tree. The tree lost all its leaves for the winter. Perching in a winter dormant tree helps the January flowers of the mistletoe get pollinated. Photo courtesy of T. Tuason.

Edible fruit or not, some people are simply entirely bugged by seeing mistletoe in their trees.

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, desert mistletoe may weaken the tree slightly, but if it is in your yard, you can help the tree by giving it extra water. Still don’t like it?

This is Not One and Done

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 will also affect the host tree, so those are not an option.

Covered in berries, this desert mistletoe is ripe for harvest. I do hope you will wait until the fruit is gone before you try to eradicate it. Photo courtesy J. Pawek.

You need to catch young mistletoe plants when they are tiny and remove them by hand. Since the haustoria (desert mistletoe “roots”) 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.

Repeat Monthly

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.


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.

Watch for the phainopepla in winter. In summer they retreat into the mountains. Photo courtesy J. Schrenk.

Mistletoe Uses

Mistletoe is just one more native plant, with charming birds and butterflies that rely on it for food. Desert mistletoe 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.



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soule-southwest-gardenMore 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: Phoradendron californicum berries photo courtesy of R. Vanderhoff.

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