Now that the leaves are falling from the trees, mistletoe is becoming more obvious. It’s mostly found in the upper branches of hardwood trees in the form of a somewhat round clump of greenery amongst an otherwise barren tree. Luckily for me, there’s one small red maple here on the Museum of Life & Science campus that’s hosting several mistletoes at a very convenient height, eye level.


As you may or may not know, mistletoe grows from the branches of live trees. The plant owes its existence, in part, to birds. The white berries that the plant produces are eaten by birds.

Besides a seed, the berry contains a viscid, mucilaginous substance within. When a bird ingests a berry, the seed passes through them intact. Surrounded by this sticky goo, it adheres to whatever the bird dropping falls upon, such as a tree limb below. The seed germinates in place, sending out a root into the bark of the tree and subsequently into the tree’s vascular system.

Succulent white berries.
Succulent white berries.

Even if the berry were not consumed and deposited by a bird, I can certainly visualize an over-ripened berry dropping down to a lower branch, the sticky pulp causing the seed to adhere to the branch and rooting within. A new plant started.

The mistletoe in our area is oak, or American mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum). According to references I’ve seen, it’s fairly common here in the Piedmont. According to my personal experience, I’d say that’s a fair assessment. I don’t see it everywhere, but often enough I’ll spot a group of the plants high up in a deciduous tree, or trees, as I drive along through the countryside. Of course, as mentioned, it’s much easier to pick out mistletoe after the leaves have fallen. Since mistletoe does not lose its leaves in winter, it becomes more evident as the host trees bare their limbs.

Mistletoe sticks out among the bare tree branches.
Mistletoe sticks out among the bare tree branches.

By the way, mistletoe is listed as being toxic to cattle and pets.

Don't allow pets access to any part of the plant.
Don’t allow pets access to any part of the plant.

I have no personal experience involving the consumption of the plant, but all parts of the plant are listed as toxic, from stem to leaves and down to its tasty looking white berries. So, don’t leave it lying about where it could be munched upon by your pets, or milk cows, if you have them.

2 responses to Mistletoe

  1. Another fun fact: it’s the larval host plant for the Great Purple Hairstreak, a beautiful little butterfly we see here once in awhile.

    • gregdodge says:

      You’re right, I forgot to mention that.


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