When I first moved to Mississippi and Alabama, I noticed after the leaves had fallen from the oak and other trees, these round balls of green in the trees. I had never seen this in trees in Chicago or in New England so it seemed strange to me. I knew this was not a form of lichen or Spanish moss that is associated with the south. When I mentioned this to others, I would sometimes get a nonchalant answer. It was obvious that my new southern neighbors paid this strange sight no mind. And they couldn’t understand why I thought this was so unusual.
The balls of green were the American Mistletoe. One of two varieties that grow in North America. The Dwarf Mistletoe grows along the pacific west and southwest. There are over 1300 species worldwide. This is a hemi-parasitic plant which means that it is not entirely self-sufficient. Once it has matured it no longer produces the sugars it needs through photosynthesis and embeds itself into the bark of the host tree. When looking at mistletoe in a tree, it looks like it is a natural branch of the tree only that its leaves are evergreen and it produces a whitish sticky berry.
While long thought of as a parasite that eventually destroys its host, it turns out this plant is actually mutually beneficial to its host and the diversity of the ecology of the forests. The Mistletoe provides shelter for nesting birds and small animals. And several bird species feed on the seeds to survive the harsh winters. There are also three species of Butterflies known as Hairstreaks that are totally dependent on the mistletoe for their existence. The one pictured here is the Great Purple Hairstreak and the American Mistletoe is its feeding ground.
Most of us know the role that mistletoe plays in our Winter holidays. It is prominent in Winter Solstice celebrations and Christmas celebrations. But I had no idea it was so prominent a species in the American south. And it is vital to a healthy forest ecology.