Desert Mistletoe Is Edible

This week, Jacqueline Soule is here to discuss a plant that can be highly useful – desert mistletoe.

There are many species of mistletoe around the world, parasitic and hemi-parisitic on a number of trees. The mistletoe plants are all toxic. The berries of almost all species are toxic. The one exception is the Sonoran and Mojave desert mistletoe, Phoradendron californicum, also called desert mistletoe. Interestingly, this unique genus is a distant relative of sandalwood.

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Berries from plants growing on mesquite are edible. Photo courtesy of Keir Morse.
Edible Fruit

The edible berries ripen in the winter months, and were once an important winter food source for the Native tribes. The Seri consider mistletoe fruit ripe and harvestable once it turns translucent. Harvest is done by spreading a blanket below the plant and hitting it with sticks to release the fruit. Seri consumed the fruit raw. The Tohono O’odham also consumed the desert mistletoe fruit raw. River Pima ate the fruit boiled and mashed, which made it the consistency of a pudding. The Cahilla gathered the desert mistletoe fruits November through April and boiled them into a paste with a sprinkle of wood ash added to the pot. We will offer some modern-day recipes for this tasty fruit in the winter months when the fruit is ripe.

The desert mistletoe fruit are white to reddish and often when ripe. But native tribes ate only the fruits of mistletoes growing on mesquite, ironwood, or catclaw acacia. Found growing on palo verdes or Condalia (desert buckthorn) the fruits are considered inedible. The rare individual mistletoe growing on creosote was to be marveled at, and avoided.

Why Tell Me Now – When There are No Berries?

As author of a number of gardening books for our area, many people ask me what to do about the mistletoe in their trees. They think the mistletoe is harming the tree. Mistletoes would be poor parasites if they killed their host. Mistletoe does a minimal amount of damage, and thus they live with their host trees for many years. In fact, mistletoes help their host trees, by attracting the phainopepla, a desert bird that enjoys the berries and also eats insects and generally helps keep trees free of pests. Desert mistletoe is also the laval food plant of a number of desert butterflies and moths.

By the way, desert mistletoe is considered hemi-parasitic because it does its own photosynthesis, rather than taking all its nutrients from its host as a full parasite does. Desert mistletoe only steals water from its host tree.

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Food in the desert! Many ways to prepare it which we will discuss as the berries ripen.
What to Do?

What to do about mistletoe in your trees? Some history first. Five centuries ago, the Spaniards brought a scrounge to the New World. Along with smallpox, chicken pox, measles, and syphilis, they brought cattle. The human diseases almost immediately decimated the native peoples, and cattle have been decimating the environment ever since.

Five centuries ago, most of our area, known as the Pimería Alta, was a lush grassland, with grass up to the belly of a tall horse. Then came cattle and overgrazing. Bare land was exposed. The mesquite trees, once limited to the disturbed open soils along the flooded river bottoms, spread out into the formerly grass-covered land. Mesquite roots went down much further than grass roots could, and helped speed the loss of grasses. Developers followed the cows, building homes. For better sales, they planted mesquite trees. Phainopeplas now have a golden opportunity to spread their population. Meanwhile, the once common grassland inhabitants like the burrowing owls are facing local extinction. Change happens.

If you wish to read more discussion on mistletoe removal, please read my blog on SW Gardening here.

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The tiny mistletoe flowers are sweetly fragrant.
Dye Plant

The foliage of desert mistletoe can be used in crafts and as a dye (in a well-ventilated space), producing a pale beige to golden to dark sienna depending on mordant. We plan to offer a day-long desert dye workshop in the near future. Please sign up for our newsletter or follow us on our Facebook page to find out when.

Other Uses

Desert mistletoe plants contain phoratoxins which can easily lead to death via slowed heart rate, increased blood pressure, convulsions, or cardiac collapse. Some of these compounds can cause hallucinations, but there is no way to judge dosage. People seeking a “high” from mistletoe still turn up in morgues each year. Native peoples used plants other than mistletoe to seek visions, and if one desires visions, one would be wise to follow their example.

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Desert mistletoe in an ironwood tree.
Final Answer

If you leave the desert mistletoe alone and don’t try to get rid of it, it will feed you and the birds and the butterflies for years to come.

soule-gardening-southwestWant to learn more? Come to the Southwest Festival of the Written Word in October 2019!  Or look for my free lectures at your local Pima County Library branch, Tubac Presidio, Tucson Festival of Books and other venues. After each event I will be signing copies of my books, including Father Kino’s Herbs: Growing and Using Them Today (Tierra del Sol Institute Press). Note – This link is to Amazon and if you buy the book there I will get a few pennies. Better yet – visit Antigone Bookstore, Mostly Books, or a local Botanical Garden such as Tohono Chul or Tucson Botanical Garden and shop locally!

© Article copyright by Jacqueline A. Soule. All rights reserved. Republishing an entire blog post or article is prohibited without permission. I receive many requests to reprint my work. My policy is that you may use a short excerpt but you must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Photos may not be used.

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