You wouldn’t want to get caught smooching under Arizona’s native mistletoe.
That’s because just getting into position beneath a clump of the stuff would likely hurt, says Brennan Basler, ranger at Usery Mountain Regional Park in Mesa.
“They grow in our trees, which are full of thorns. If you tried to get at some of it, you’re probably going to come away injured.”
Basler will lead a walk on Friday and Dec. 23 to spot the plant from a safe, thorn-free distance. Phoradendron californicum — or desert mistletoe, as it’s commonly known — grows in the branches of trees and often looks to untrained eyes like nests, tumbleweeds or even algae stuck up in the branches.
Unlike the velvety-leafed mistletoe popular at Christmastime, desert mistletoe is stringy, with dense clusters of brittle, jointed stems.
“But they are cousins; they’re related,” says Basler. And they have something in common: they’re parasitic.
“They steal food and nutrients from their host plant,” he says. “Desert mistletoe will grow in a number of our desert trees — paloverde, ironwood, mesquite, acacia. They implant their roots right into the trunk and tap into the tree’s water and nutrients.”
In extreme cases, when dozens of mistletoe take over a tree or when the tree is weak or water-deprived, the mistletoe can actually kill a tree.
The plant is aided by a bird called a Phainopepla, which eats mistletoe berries and spreads their pits, so new mistletoe plants can sprout on other trees.
“They’re a beautiful little bird. The males look like miniature black cardinals, and it’s an amazing story, the relationship between this little bird and the mistletoe,” says Basler.
He’ll share facts and stories about both during the stroll.
But don’t expect to walk away with a cluster of desert mistletoe to hang over your door or hold above a sweetheart at a holiday party.
“The type we have here just isn’t conducive to that. It’s got these long, straggly branches, and it’s very hard to get a clump of it because all these strands are attached to the tree trunk itself. You’d get your arm torn up just trying to reach a piece,” says Basler.
Instead, you might want to make a tradition of kissing each time you see the plant. Basler says it’s amazing how often you’ll notice mistletoe around these parts once you learn how to spot it.