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Mistletoes of Southern Australia

Mistletoes of Southern Australia

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Mistletoes of Southern Australia

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Oct 1, 2019


Mistletoes are an enigmatic group of plants. Lacking roots and depending on other plants for their livelihood, they have inspired a range of beliefs throughout the world. Some people regard them as being endowed with magical properties, others as destructive weeds that devalue native habitats, and still others as beautiful native plants that support wildlife.

This second edition of Mistletoes of Southern Australia is the definitive authority on these intriguing native plants. With specially commissioned watercolours by artist Robyn Hulley and more than 130 colour photographs, it provides detailed species accounts for all 47 species found in the region. It is fully updated throughout, with new distribution maps and new sections on fire, climate change and mistletoes in urban areas. It also describes the ecology, life history and cultural significance of mistletoes, their distribution in Australia and around the world, and practical advice on their management.

Oct 1, 2019

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Mistletoes of Southern Australia - David M. Watson

Mistletoes of Southern Australia

S E C O N D  E D I T I O N

© David M Watson 2019

All rights reserved. Except under the conditions described in the Australian Copyright Act 1968 and subsequent amendments, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, duplicating or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner. Contact CSIRO Publishing for all permission requests.

The author asserts their moral rights, including the right to be identified as the author.

A catalogue record for this book is available from the National Library of Australia.

ISBN: 9781486310937 (pbk.)

ISBN: 9781486310944 (epdf)

ISBN: 9781486310951 (epub)

Published by:

CSIRO Publishing

Locked Bag 10

Clayton South VIC 3169


Telephone: +61 3 9545 8400

Email: publishing.sales@csiro.au

Website: www.publish.csiro.au

Front cover: (main) Fleshy Mistletoe (Amyema miraculosa);

(top) Melaleuca Mistletoe (Amyema melaleucae)

Back cover: Mistletoe Moth (Comocrus behri) cocoon, larva and moth on mistletoe

Page v: Smooth Mistletoe (Bill Higham)

All photographs are by the author unless noted otherwise.

Edited by Adrienne de Kretser, Righting Writing

Cover design by Alicia Freile, Tango Media

Typeset by Thomson Digital

Printed in China by Toppan Leefung Printing Limited

CSIRO Publishing publishes and distributes scientific, technical and health science books, magazines and journals from Australia to a worldwide audience and conducts these activities autonomously from the research activities of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of, and should not be attributed to, the publisher or CSIRO. The copyright owner shall not be liable for technical or other errors or omissions contained herein. The reader/user accepts all risks and responsibility for losses, damages, costs and other consequences resulting directly or indirectly from using this information.


CSIRO acknowledges the Traditional Owners of the lands that we live and work on across Australia and pays its respect to Elders past and present. CSIRO recognises that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have made and will continue to make extraordinary contributions to all aspects of Australian life including culture, economy and science.

The paper this book is printed on is in accordance with the standards of the Forest Stewardship Council®. The FSC® promotes environmentally responsible, socially beneficial and economically viable management of the world’s forests.




1 Biology

2 Identification

3 Species accounts



4 Ecology

5 Cultural significance

6 Restoration and management

Species list



A Western Australian Christmas Tree, the world’s largest mistletoe, with the author for scale.


Mistletoes are a distinctive group of native plants found throughout Australia, from Wilson’s Promontory to Bamaga, Byron Bay to Useless Loop and most regions in between. In addition to forest and woodland, desert and heathland, mistletoes also abound in urban and agricultural areas, making them some of the continent’s most cosmopolitan plants. Although plenty has been written about Australian mistletoes, most of this material is difficult to access, tucked away in journals and monographs beyond the reach of many. Species descriptions, identification keys and distributional summaries are available in the national and state-based Floras, but they are written for specialist readers fluent in botanical terminology. Likewise, a multitude of articles summarising findings from more than a century of research are contained in journals and scientific texts, but these articles are widely scattered and targeted primarily towards experts. By drawing together existing knowledge about these plants, I aim to make this information accessible to a wider audience and thereby raise awareness of these distinctive and beautiful Australian natives. This book also provides an opportunity to dispel some of the misunderstandings and unfounded beliefs about these plants – Australian mistletoes are not toxic, they were not introduced and they do not necessarily kill trees. Finally, this book highlights critical gaps in our understanding of Australian mistletoes. There are still many mysteries and unanswered questions; there are even unnamed mistletoes in northern Australia awaiting formal description. Although some of these grey areas are the subject of current research, interested readers can also make significant contributions to the knowledge gaps. So, rather than being the definitive volume on Australian mistletoes, this book is intended to foster an appreciation and deeper understanding of these plants and to inspire readers to add pieces to the puzzle.

This book is arranged into six sections. In Chapter 1, I explain what is (and isn’t) a mistletoe and give an overview of their origins, relationships, general biology and overall patterns of diversity, comparing southern Australia with other regions. Chapter 2 provides information on mistletoe identification, and Chapter 3 contains detailed species accounts of the 47 mistletoe species recorded in southern Australia. The text and accompanying illustration and photograph allow mistletoes to be identified to species without specialist botanical knowledge. In Chapter 4, the ecology of these native plants is described, detailing how these parasitic plants interact with their hosts, pollinators, seed dispersers and natural enemies, and describing the roles they play within their respective communities. Chapter 5 focuses on the cultural significance of mistletoes in southern Australia, contrasting imported European beliefs with home-grown Indigenous lore. Finally, in Chapter 6, the management of mistletoes, especially in urban and agricultural landscapes, is discussed, including a summary of current information about control techniques and their appropriate use, and best-practice techniques for incorporating mistletoe into habitat restoration.

Although drawing on material from throughout Australia and elsewhere, the scope of this book is restricted to southern Australia, covering every mistletoe species occurring in Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia and the southern half of Western Australia. Accordingly, this book does not include the remaining 47 species found in northern Australia and offshore territories. The reasons for this are primarily pragmatic: many of the northern species occupy restricted distributions in remote areas (some are known only from single localities) and little is known about their biology, distribution, host-range and life history. My hope is that this book will help foster interest in Australian mistletoes and stimulate birdwatchers travelling to Cape York and the Torres Strait Islands and naturalists visiting the Kimberley and Arnhem Land to look out for these northern mistletoes, improve our collective knowledge, and build up the raw material necessary for a future companion piece, Mistletoes of Northern Australia.

A Pale-leaved Mistletoe in a mulga growing at Cameron Corner, where New South Wales, South Australia and Queensland meet. All the mistletoe species occurring in habitats south, east and west of this point are included in this book.

This second edition expands on the original 2011 book, featuring many new photographs, adding a species recently found in north-eastern New South Wales (Gillian’s mistletoe, Muellerina flexialabastra), revising the distribution maps, updating the ecology chapter and expanding the management and restoration chapter.

Hakea Mistletoe.

Bill Muir


My interest in mistletoes stretches back to childhood, when I encountered strange green clumps in Plane trees and Pin Oaks growing in suburban Melbourne. I began to appreciate the diversity of these intriguing plants and their importance to birds during my formative Honours research in the Buloke woodlands of western Victoria. As my studies and research took me to different places, I kept note of mistletoes and gradually built up an understanding of the various ecological interactions between these parasitic plants and their hosts, pollinators, seed dispersers, natural enemies and overall communities.

The impetus to write this book came from my partner in this project, Robyn Hulley, who, upon realising there wasn’t a single book devoted to the identification and natural history of Australian mistletoes, contacted me and encouraged me to write it. Although many others had urged me to write a book on the subject, Robyn was the only one who offered to help with the endeavour, so I simply couldn’t refuse! Thank you Robyn – for your tireless enthusiasm, dedication and tremendous attention to detail that resulted in the series of beautifully composed illustrations. I am indebted to Maggie for her support and encouragement during the planning, writing and revising of this book and to my sons Douglas, Jack and Charlie for their forbearance and probing questions about the finer points of loranthology. Charles Sturt University has supported my dedicated research on mistletoes from the outset, and the School of Environmental Sciences and the Institute for Land, Water and Society have assisted Robyn and me in completing this book. I am grateful to Nick Alexander, Briana Melideo and Lauren Webb at CSIRO Publishing for guidance and to editor Adrienne de Kretser for improving the consistency and clarity of the text. My research students past and present have contributed greatly to the ideas expressed herein. I am especially grateful to Laurence Barea, Anna Burns, Melinda Cook, Wendy March and John Rawsthorne for sharing their ideas and insights, and to Simon McDonald for help updating all the distribution maps. Finally, thank you to everyone who contributed photographs, field notes, obscure publications and fresh samples of mistletoes to be painted – this book would not have been possible without your interest and generosity.

David M. Watson

Avonlea, Burrumbuttock

Acacia Jointed Mistletoe.

Tony Start

Leopardwood Mistletoe.


Mistletoes are a diverse group of parasitic plants found throughout the world. Like mangroves and succulents, mistletoes are a functional group, defined by the way they grow. Rather than representatives of a single plant family, mistletoes include lineages from several families, and their distinctive parasitic habit has evolved independently on multiple occasions. These complex origins and global distribution lead to some confusion – many people familiar with European mistletoe are unaware of the hundreds of mistletoes found beyond Europe, and many Australians assume that mistletoe was introduced into this continent. In this chapter, these misconceptions are dispelled and a summary of our current understanding of mistletoes’ origins, diversity and life history is provided. Having clarified what mistletoes are, various other kinds of plants that live within the canopy are distinguished. Global patterns of mistletoe diversity and distribution are summarised for the main mistletoe groups, as well as current ideas about their origin and early evolution. Moving closer to home, the history of Australasian mistletoes is discussed, comparing Australian mistletoes with those of our near neighbours New Guinea and New Zealand, and evaluating possible explanations for the absence of mistletoe from Tasmania. Finally, the life cycle of mistletoes is described, detailing the complex set of processes that allow one plant to depend entirely upon another.

What is mistletoe?

A young girl once described mistletoes to me as ear-rings for gum trees. While describing perfectly the teardrop-shaped clumps of dense foliage at the edge of eucalypt crowns familiar to many Australians, this description does not apply to all species and a more inclusive definition is needed. Mistletoes are parasitic plants – instead of obtaining nutrients and water directly from the soil through roots, they take them from other plants. Over 4500 species in 20 families of flowering plants have adopted a parasitic habit, looking like regular herbs, creepers, shrubs or trees above ground while tapping into the roots of nearby plants below ground. Relying on their hosts for their water and nutritional needs, most parasitic plants manufacture their own carbohydrates using photosynthesis. This growth habit is known as hemiparasitism (half-parasitic) and it distinguishes these green plants from various ghostly plants with no chlorophyll that rely on their host plants or host fungi for all of their needs (holoparasites). Unlike most hemiparasites, mistletoes attach to their hosts above ground, thereby freeing them from the soil completely. Several other parasites have adopted an aerial habit, but mistletoes are distinguished by their growth form – they are shrubby, often woody plants. So, mistletoes can be defined using three words – shrubby aerial hemiparasites – and this definition sets mistletoes apart from all other plants, both within Australia and worldwide.

The mistletoe Viscum album from Otto Wilhelm Thomé’s Flora von Deutschland Österreich und der Schweiz (Flora of Germany, Austria and Switzerland), 1885.

Derivation of the word ‘mistletoe’

Originally used to refer exclusively to the single species in western Europe (Viscum album), the word mistletoe dates back to the Anglo-Saxon, but the exact derivation is debatable. Some linguists suggest the word can be traced to misteltan, coming from two Old German words – mist (dung) and tan or tang (twig) – referring to the way mistletoe seeds are dispersed by birds. An alternative suggestion is that the word came from mist, the Old Dutch word for bird lime – a sticky glue-like substance derived from various plants including Viscum album that was smeared on twigs and branches to catch small birds. A third option is a combination of tan with another old German word, mistl (different), referring to the clear difference between parasite and host (especially in winter, when the leafy mistletoe contrasts with the bare twigs of its deciduous host). Regardless of its derivation, the word has been in use since the 14th century.

Using this definition, we can consider other kinds of plants that are often confused with mistletoes. A distinctive plant found throughout the world is dodder (many species in the genus Cuscuta) and the unrelated, but remarkably similar, dodder laurels (Cassytha spp.) – twisting vines that form tangled clumps of yellow to lime-green tendrils within the branches of their host plants. Although they are hemiparasitic and attach to their hosts above ground, these herbaceous vine-like plants have no woody tissues and never adopt a shrubby habit, so are not regarded as mistletoes. The branches of forest trees – especially in the tropics and other high-rainfall regions – are often covered with smaller plants, including mosses, liverworts, ferns, orchids and a range of other flowering plants. These plants, known as epiphytes, are not parasitic and take nothing from the tree – they just grow upon the bark and use the tree to boost them above the ground where there is more light and greater access to pollinators and seed dispersers. Strangler figs represent a particular kind of epiphyte, which begin growing high in the canopy, then send down roots as they grow larger, eventually out-shading the original tree. Again, this is not parasitism; rather, it is a novel strategy to gain a competitive advantage in dark closed-canopy forests.

The twining parasite Dodder Cuscuta spp. is found worldwide. Although parasitic it is neither shrubby nor woody so is not considered a mistletoe.

An epiphytic bird’s nest fern Asplenum australasicum. As with other epiphytes, they are not parasitic, only relying on their host as a substrate to grow on.

A root-parasitic quandong Santalum acuminatum.

A strangler fig Ficus sp. – none of these are mistletoes.

Aside from epiphytes, there is one final kind of growth that can be confused with mistletoes. A range of mites, wasps and other insects lays their eggs inside plant leaves and stems, inducing the formation of tumour-like growths to nourish their developing larvae, which are known collectively as galls. Occasionally, these galls can change the branching pattern of the affected plant, leading

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