Desert Mistletoe

Phoradendron californicum

Phoradendron californicum and Phainopepla nitens watercolor © by Michael Plagens

Watercolor from specimen found in the Castle Dome Mountains, La Paz County, Arizona on 23 Feb. 1992. The bird is a male Phainopepla.

Phoradendron californicum seeds © Mike Plagens

Berries are eaten by birds. The hard seeds are then passed through the alimentary canal or else regurgitated and left on a branch. There they can germinate and establish a root system within the host plant. Location Organ Pipe Cactus NM.

The beautiful butterfly known as the Purple Hairstreak feeds on this plant in the larval (caterpillar) stage.

Great Purple Hairstreak

Great Purple Hairstreak

PARASITIC SHRUB: A pendulous shrub up to a meter in length growing from the branches of one of the leguminous trees (Ironwood, Mesquite, Palo Verde, Acacia), infrequently in other woody plants, even Creosote Bush (Larrea tridentata.

LEAFLESS: Leaves are reduced to scales. Green twigs carry on photosynthesis but as a parasite it takes up water and nutrients through its roots that grow into the cambium and xylem of the host.

FLOWERS: Very small greenish-yellow flowers send forth strong, fragrant perfume from late Jan. to Mar. Males and female blooms on separate plants (dioeceous). The bright yellow pollen is gathered from male plants by Honey Bees (Apis mellifera).

FRUIT: Female plants produce berries that ripen to yellow-salmon color and contain several sticky red seeds. Phainopeplas are the principal vectors of the seeds.

UNARMED. However, the host trees are often very thorny indeed.

RANGE: Common wherever suitable host trees occur. If many large mistletoe plants become established on a single host tree it may succumb to the attack and die. Vigorous trees may abort the infected branch, thereby ridding itself of the parasite. But, consider also that berry-feeding birds deposit fertilizing guano.

Viscaceae -- Mistletoe Family

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Phoradendron californicum berries © Mike Plagens

Ripe berries and open flowers were found in the Four Peaks foothills, Maricopa Co., Arizona. 17 Jan. 2015.

More Information:

Sonoran Desert Field Guide
Sonoran Desert Places
Sonoran Desert Naturalist Home Page


Copyright Michael J. Plagens, page created 1 January 1998,
updated 14 March 2016.