You’re probably familiar with the Christmas tradition of kissing under the mistletoe. Did you know about its slanderous reputation as a tree killer? Read on to find out the truth.

tea tree mistletoe and butterfly
Wire-leaf mistletoe (Amyema preissii) with a satin azure butterfly (Ogyris amaryllis meridionalis). Photo: Matt Endacott.

While there are 1000+ different species of mistletoe across the globe, the most well-known is the European mistletoe (Viscum album).

Here in Australia there are almost 100 native species of mistletoe – and in greater Adelaide, there’s just 5 including box mistletoe (Amyema miquelii), wire-leaf mistletoe (Amyema preissii), tea-tree mistletoe (Amyema melaleucae), drooping mistletoe (Amyema pendula ssp. pendula) and harlequin mistletoe (Lysiana exocarpii).

You are most likely to find mistletoe living in the crown (where the branches grow out of the trunk) of its host plant.

Mistletoes are ‘semi-parasitic’ plants, which means that they create some food themselves and rely on a host plant (like a tree) for the rest.

box mistletoe-credit Jean and Fred Hort, Flickr
Box mistletoe (Amyema miquelii) one of the 5 mistletoe species in Adelaide. Photo: Jean and Fred Hort, Flickr.

Is mistletoe bad for a tree?

Native mistletoe is misunderstood in Australia because they are a semi-parasitic plant.

As a semi-parasitic plant, mistletoes rely on their host tree for survival. But if the tree dies, they die too. So they really don’t want to hurt their host – who gives them life.

Mistletoes don’t usually damage host trees or any other plant that they attach themselves to, and this living on a tree life is all a part of the natural environment.

Plus trees can shake them off if they really wanted. Trees are known to drop a branch when wanting to remove mistletoe on them.

mistletoe bird-credit Martin Stokes
A mistletoe bird. Photo: Martin Stokes.

What are the benefits of mistletoe?

Mistletoe is great for:

So if you spot some mistletoe in your garden, think twice before removing it.

mistletoe bird with fruit-credit Matt Endacott
A mistletoe bird with mistletoe fruit. Photo: Matt Endacott.

How does mistletoe grow?

Mistletoes don’t have the same root system as other plants.

They have a ‘haustorium’ which means a stem or root that can attach and grow (by taking some nutrients and water) on a host plant.

Mistletoe can change the way they look to match their host. For example, box mistletoe has leaves shaped like Eucalyptus leaves.

This is because they share hormones with their host trees, and it may be a mistletoe camouflage survival tactic to avoid being a possum snack.

Once established, mistletoe takes a little while to flower and produce fruit.

box mistletoe and broad-margined azure
Box mistletoe and a broad-margined azure (Ogyris olane). Photo: Matt Endacott

How to “seed” mistletoe

You’ve read the benefits. Now here’s 7 steps to seed/propagate mistletoe in your yard:

  1. Find a healthy and not too young tree to be the host.
  2. Locate some fruiting mistletoe.
  3. Pick some ripe fruit from the mistletoe
  4. Pop the seed out of the fruit. It’ll be sticky.
  5. Find a branch on your host tree about the width of a pencil.
  6. Wipe the sticky seed onto the branch’s underside.
  7. Wait and see if it takes and grows.

Top tip: To maximise your success, seed more than one plant per branch. If they all start growing, remove the extras, leaving just one.

harlequin mistletoe-credit Mark Marathon, Wikimedia Commons
Harlequin mistletoe (Lysiana exocarpi) one of 5 species in metro Adelaide. Photo: Mark Marathon, Wikimedia Commons.

Spread the mistletoe love

Mistletoe is an important part of a healthy environment.

You can help by:

  1. Spreading the word about the important role mistletoe plays in Adelaide’s environment.
  2. Leaving native mistletoe if you spot it on a tree at home
  3. Finding opportunities to propagate native mistletoe – just give it a go!

Looking for another way to help nature? Start gardening!

Head to our gardening hub for tips and tricks to help, including a downloadable copy of our Adelaide Planting Guide.

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