Garden Guy: A Case for Mistletoe Birds, Butterflies, and the Christmas Kiss

My friend, Greg Grant is a Texas AgriLife Extension Horticulturist in Smith County. He was recognized by Texas Parks and Wildlife with the 2017 Land Steward Award. They documented his farm through a terrific video, filling my heart with joy.

Greg and I are both over 50 and it probably takes this amount of seasoning to absorb what I have written below. In the video, he is quoted as saying, “Let the dead trees live.” There is certainly good justification. I realize there may be issues here in the upscale Metroplex neighborhoods but as you enter more rural areas, it is certainly worth consideration.

I would like to approach the subject through the mistletoe. Believe it or not there are 30 mistletoes native to the United States and, as you may already know, they are indeed parasites.  However, there are people who profit greatly from selling it (I’ve even seen it for sale in craft stores). But if you want to read about mistletoe, you go to the book called, “Diseases of Trees and Shrubs.” Several pages are dedicated to this affliction of our beloved trees.

The eastern mistletoe parasitizes about 110 host species in 50 genera. Host groups include ash, beech, birch, hickory, maple, oak, pecan, sycamore, walnut and willow. The mistletoe, through a device called a sinker, becomes deeply embedded in the tree trunks. After several years they are considerably below the site of the original infection. So to remove, the branch must be cut below the mistletoe sight.

Birds spread mistletoe from tree to tree when they eat the pulp around the seeds, which stick to them. The seeds then germinate and the parasite grows through the bark into the tree’s water-conducting tissues where the sinkers develop. The white fruits and seeds are poisonous to humans but relished by a host of birds and mammals.

Incredibly, even the mistletoe serves a purpose in our ecosystem. Roger di Silvestro, writing for the National Wildlife Federation, stated that a mistletoe-infested forest may support three times as many cavity nesting birds as a forest without. It is the trees dying off that provide these strategic nesting sites. Some of our favorite woodpeckers use such trees.

I can also make a serious case for mistletoe and a $5 butterfly. I remember like it was yesterday. I returned from a Rotary club meeting in Mission, Texas to see a large group with cameras gathered around a patch of flowers at the National Butterfly Center. I quickly went in and asked, “What are they seeing?” The answer was a Great Purple Hairstreak butterfly. Today, when I give a presentation on butterflies, I typically call that one a $5 butterfly. In other words, it is so showy it’s worth the price of admission.

Despite the fact that this large hairstreak, sporting iridescent colors, may be found along the east coast from Florida to Maryland, west to Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas, continuing to New Mexico, Arizona and up the west coast to Oregon it seems the gardening public simply hasn’t paid attention. It is indeed a rare group of gardeners I speak to, that has ever seen the Great Purple Hairstreak butterfly.

While we teach and labor toward restoring milkweed for Monarch’s, which is their only larval food source, the Great Purple Hairstreak is also on a rigid diet. The caterpillar (along with a few other hairstreak species) will only feed on mistletoes. Yes, even mistletoe has a purpose in life.

Over the years, I have had a good laugh at the expense of Oklahoma for naming the mistletoe as their State Floral Emblem. As I have gotten gray and matured in my thinking, I would like to tip my hat to the Sooner State. You were way ahead of your time back in 1893; I’m guessing you already knew mistletoe served a valuable purpose, but again it could have all been about the Christmas kiss.

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 For the video of Greg Grant’s award-winning farm, visit