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What Time is it in Nature: Mistletoe

January 22, 2013

While many people associate them with Christmas traditions, mistletoes (Phoradendron sp) are fascinating parasitic plants.  We don’t have many trees with mistletoe on the Prairie Ridge grounds, but they are still an important part of the environment.


Mistletoes are small shrubs with a variety of shapes, but most eastern species are 2-5 feet across and have relatively large, bright evergreen leaves.  During the late fall and early winter, large clusters of white berries appear on the plants, an important source of winter fruit for many birds.  Birds that eat the berries are also important for the plant and help spread them from one location to another.  After passing through the bird’s digestive tract, the seeds are deposited onto the branches where the bird sits.  Those seeds can then develop into new plants

Mistletoes are interesting plants because they are hemi-parasitic on a variety of trees.  Unlike true parasites, mistletoes do not derive all of their nutrients from the tree and rely on them only for water and select nutrients.  Mistletoes have green leaves and produce most of their own food via photosynthesis.  In spite of their photosynthetic abilities, however, heavy infestations can cause loss of branches or weaken trees so that they become more susceptible to disease.

Mistletoes are important to many other species, partly because they produce fruits in winter when other food sources can be scarce.  The leaves and shoots are also eaten by a variety of animals and provide shelter to some birds that choose to nest in dense mistletoe growth.  Some scientists consider mistletoes keystone species: species that so many other species depend on for their survival that their loss would have broadly negative impacts on the environment.  Though they are often considered tree pests, mistletoes are an important part of the environment for many other species.

On your next visit to Prairie Ridge, look for mistletoes at the tops of trees along the forest trail.  In an otherwise leafless environment, you can’t miss the bright green leafy growth in the trees!  And keep looking when you see one of these fantastic parasites.  You might see several interesting animals in the area as well.

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Musuem’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

(Photos by Chris Goforth)

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