|Bright green clusters of big-leaf mistletoe cling to a cottonwood tree in Modjeska Canyon. Photo by J.J. Meyer|
A reprint of my column that ran in Orange County Register on 12/23/2013:
Kissing under the mistletoe may be a popular custom this time of year. But did you know the plant has a more direct connection to the birds and the bees?
Birds rely on mistletoe for food and shelter, while native bees and butterflies seek its nectar and pollen.
And while the plant may have a romantic notion, its name does not. “Mistel” is the Anglo-Saxon word for “dung” and “tan” is the word for “twig.” Thus, “dung-on-a-twig.” The name originated from the fact that birds spread the seeds of the plant through their droppings.
“Usually you find mistletoe high in the trees because that’s where the birds perch,” said naturalist Kurt Miethke of Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary. Birds feed on the berries then excrete mistletoe seeds on the host tree. The seeds then root into the tree, allowing the parasitic plant to tap its host for water and nutrients.
Mistletoe berries develop this time of year, providing food for birds such as Western bluebirds, cedar waxwings, mourning doves and American robins.
“The phainopepla, a silky-flycatcher, is most tied to it,” Miethke said. They use it for nesting in the spring and they rely on mistletoe berries almost exclusively for food during the winter.
Phainopeplas are flashy birds with shiny black feathers, long tail, a distinct crest and red eyes. They breed in the desert areas in early spring. “We tend to see them in the late spring and summer, when it gets too hot in the desert,” said Miethke, who leads bird walks at the sanctuary. “They move into cooler habitats and raise a second brood.”
Small gray bushtits build well-disguised nests in the mistletoe at the sanctuary. Its dense cover provides protection against predators and the elements. Hawks and crows use it as a base and have built their nests on top of it.
While there are many species of mistletoe worldwide, only two are found in Orange County, he said. Those are the big-leaf and oak, also known as hairy mistletoe. Big-leaf mistletoe infects alder, cottonwood, walnut, willow, and sycamore trees, while and the oak mistletoe typically infects oak trees and woody chaparral shrubs such as Manzanita, California bay laurel and sumac.
Big-leaf mistletoe can be found in the canyons and foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains, as well as the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park. The oak variety can be found in areas with coast live oak trees such as Limestone Canyon.
“I've only found the big-leaf type on our property, none of the oak mistletoe,” he said.