True Mistletoes
Phoradendron spp.
Figure 253. Figure 253. Phoradendron coryae in December.

True mistletoes are commonly known as the Christmas or leafy mistletoes. There are eight species in the Southwest, all within the genus Phoradendron. Three species occur on hardwoods, the other five infect conifers. Phoradendron macrophyllum has a very broad host range, occurring on most riparian tree species, while the other true mistletoes are genus specific.

Hosts:  See table (below)

Symptoms/signs:  True mistletoes are flowering plants with thick green stems. Plants are often round in form and up to 1 meter in diameter, depending on the species. Hardwood true mistletoes have thick green leaves that are nearly oval in shape, contrasting with conifer true mistletoes, which have small thin leaves or are nearly leafless. The small, sticky berries are white, pink or red and are ripe from October to January, depending on the species. Evergreen clumps of mistletoe are readily observed on bare deciduous trees in winter.

Figure 254. Figure 254. Phoradendron juniperinum with pink ripe berries.

Biology:  Fruit-eating birds distribute the seeds in their droppings or by wiping their beaks. Some bird species swallow the fruit whole and disperse the seeds to another tree, while other bird species pick out the seed, leaving it on the host plant, and swallow only the pulp.

When the seeds germinate a modified root penetrates the bark of the host and forms a connection through which water and nutrients pass from the host to the mistletoe. It takes approximately 2 to 3 years for shoots to develop, following initial infection, and another year before the plant is producing berries.

Figure 255. Figure 255. True mistletoe on juniper.

Effects:  Young or small trees are seldom infected by true mistletoe. In nearly all cases, initial infection occurs on larger or older trees because birds prefer to perch in the tops of taller trees. Severe buildup of mistletoe often occurs within an infected tree because birds are attracted to and may spend prolonged periods feeding on the mistletoe berries. True mistletoes are not aggressive pathogens. They use the host xylem as a water source and do not cause mortality until water availability to the host is limited. In some hosts, infected portions of the tree often exhibit galls on branches or burls in the trunk. On oaks, sycamores, and cottonwoods, branch dieback is associated with galls formed by the corresponding mistletoe.

Similar Insects and Diseases:  Deformities caused by canker and rust fungi can resemble those caused by mistletoe.

References:  26, 36, 85, 93

Figure 256. Figure 256. Phoradendron macrophyllum on Arizona sycamore.
Figure 257. Figure 257. Phoradendron californicum has red berries that ripen in winter.
Figure 258. Figure 258. Desert mistletoe plants are red when full of fruit.


Principal Hosts and Distribution of True Mistletoes in Arizona and New Mexico
Common Name
Principal Host
Bigleaf mistletoe Phoradendron macrophyllum (Engelm.) Cockerell Most riparian hardwood species, except oaks Throughout lower elevation riparian areas of both states
Southwestern oak mistletoe Phoradendron coryae Trel. Oak species Throughout live oak woodlands and lower elevation gambel oak areas of both states
Desert mistletoe Phoradendron californicum Nutt. Leguminous trees and shrubs (e.g. Mesquite (Prosopis spp.), Acacia (Acacia spp.), Palo Verde (Cercidium spp.), and ironwood (Olneya spp.) Throughout the ranges of host types in Arizona and extreme southwest corner of New Mexico
Juniper mistletoe Phoradendron juniperinum Engelmann All juniper species Throughout juniper woodlands of Arizona and New Mexico
Hairy juniper mistletoe Phoradendron capitellatum Torr. ex Tel. Utah, alligator and red-berry juniper Southern Arizona and southwest New Mexico
Texas juniper mistletoe Phoradendron hawksworthii Wiens & CG Shaw Alligator and one-seed juniper Southeastern New Mexico
Dense mistletoe Phoradendron densum Torr. ex Tel. Arizona cypress Central Arizona
White fir true mistletoe Phoradendron pauciflorum Torr. White fir Santa Catalina Mountains of southeast Arizona


Figure 259. Figure 259. True mistletoes are easy to spot on deciduous trees like this mesquite tree.
Figure 260. Figure 260. Phoradendron densum on Arizona cypress.
Figure 261. Figure 261. Phoradendron hawksworthii on juniper in New Mexico.
Figure 262. Figure 262. Phoradendron pauciflorum often kills tops of infected white fir.