Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine   


December 2009 cover image Birdwatching at San Bernard River National Wildlife refuge

Flora Fact: The Kissing Plant

Mistletoe’s effects aren’t so benign for trees.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

What’s to love about Christmas mistletoe? Perhaps not much, unless someone you love happens to be standing under a clump this holiday season. Then you know the drill!

Smooching aside, Phoradendron tomentosum — our most common Texas species — lives as a semiparasitic shrub on mesquites, oaks, hackberries and other hardwoods. Green, leathery leaves enable mistletoe to process food via photosynthesis. Through its root-like anchor (called a haustorium), mistletoe steals moisture and minerals from a tree. Generally speaking, mistletoe can weaken and eventually kill a limb but not the entire tree. However, severe infestations can be lethal.

On that note, mistletoe leaves and white berries, if ingested, are toxic to humans but not birds. Their immunity has a twofold purpose. After eating the gooey berries, birds, such as mockingbirds and cedar waxwings, may wipe off extras that stick to their beak. They’ll also deposit digested berries on other branches, where the seeds stick and germinate.

Need reasons to love mistletoe? Caterpillars of the great purple hairstreak (Altides halesus) feed on the plant. Plus, serious woodworkers hanker after mesquite wood that’s swollen with “mistletoe burls.” These burls, produced at the point where mistletoe drills into the wood, contain beautiful grains and patterns.

In Priddy, Texas, Robert and Carolyn Tiemann can’t say enough about mistletoe. That’s because their business has packaged and shipped the holiday greenery since the devastating drought of the late 1950s forced their ranching family to diversify.

“We buy mistletoe from local folks who gather and pick it within a 50-mile radius,” Carolyn says. “A lot of people don’t want mistletoe in their trees, and that’s good for us!”

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