Forage Desert Mistletoe Fruit

Desert mistletoe fruit is the only mistletoe fruit that is edible by humans. BUT – only when harvested off specific trees according to Native lore.

Mistletoe is Edible?!

NO.  Not mistletoe itself, and not most species!  There are many species of mistletoes around the world. The mistletoe plants (PLANTS) themselves are ALL toxic. The berries of most (MOST) species are toxic.

The one exception is our local desert mistletoe, Phoradendron californicum. This species has not only edible – but highly palatable – white to reddish translucent berries. The color of the berries varies by plants – just like some humans are blonds and some brunettes.

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Some desert mistletoe are more red and less translucent when ripe. This is just normal variation within the species. Photo courtesy R. Vanderhoff.

Native Uses of Mistletoe

Native peoples ate only the fruits of mistletoes growing on mesquite, ironwood or catclaw acacia (see citations below). Found growing on any other trees, like palo verde (Parkinsonia) or desert buckthorn (Condalia), the fruits are considered inedible.

According to literature, the Seri consider mistletoe fruit ripe and harvestable once it turns translucent. Harvest is done by spreading a blanket below the plant and hitting it with sticks to release the fruit. Seri consumed the fruit raw. The Tohono O’odham also consumed the fruit raw.

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The same vessel used to pound mesquite pods could be used for desert mistletoe berries. Photo labeled “River Pima woman”

The Akimel O’odham (formerly the “River Pima”) ate the fruit boiled and mashed, which made it the consistency of a pudding. The Cahilla gathered the fruits November through April and boiled them into a paste with a sprinkle of wood ash added to the pot.  (Bibliography at the end of this article.)

Looking Back in Time

I find myself wondering if Father Kino was ever served mistletoe berries.  I’ll bet he was, but he very rarely mentioned a single thing he ate. Read more about his life here in the Southwest in this book:

soule-kino-southwestThe last few copies of this out-of-print award winning Southwestern book are now for sale. Father Kino’s Herbs: Growing and Using Them Today   The review says:  “Award-winning garden writer Dr. Jacqueline A. Soule has pulled together a fascinating book on the life of Father Eusebio Francisco Kino and some of the plants that he brought to Southern Arizona and northwestern Sonora, and area called the Pimeria Alta.”

A steal at only $20!  This link is to our sales site. The profits from the sale go to the local Horticulture Therapy non-profit Tierra del Sol Institute.  We hope you will help support this great Southwest non-profit.

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Plants of desert mistletoe can become quite large and offer a bountiful harvest of berries. Photo courtesy S. Shebs.

Mistletoe Plants are Toxic

Desert mistletoe plants (not the fruit) contain phoratoxins. These toxins are specific to Phoradendreon.  They can easily lead to death via slowed heart rate, increased blood pressure, convulsions, or cardiac collapse. Some of these compounds can cause hallucinations, but there is no way to judge dosage. People seeking a “high” from mistletoe still turn up in morgues each year. Native peoples used plants other than mistletoe to seek visions, and if one desires visions, one would be wise to follow their example.

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The male flowers are small and offer a tiny sip of nectar to the pollinators.

What About the Flowers

Savorist Monica King, as a beekeeper, asked me if mistletoe pollen is poisonous, since the plants are. It took some digging and a few telephone calls. A researcher that asked not to be named due to the guidelines of their current employer stated in a personal communication: “The pollen of Phorodendrom californicum should not be an issue when consuming honey or propolis collected during Phrodendron californicum flowering season. It does not appear that the plant puts phoratoxins into the pollen itself. Further research should be done, and moderation is advised.”

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Watch the phainopepla – they will dive right in when the berries are ripe.

Harvesting and Use

Mistletoe berries are ripe once they turn translucent and you can generally see the red seed inside. They also become soft and squishy, losing their hardness.  Easiest way to tell when they are ripe?  Watch the phainopeplas, when they start devouring berries, then the fruit is ripe!

I have only eaten the berries fresh, and find them reminiscent of elderberry in flavor. I am considering an experiment with making a jelly this year.

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This is a white thorn acacia with mistletoe. It would not be considered harvest-able according to Native lore.

Mistletoe in the Landscape

Sad to say, here in the desert Southwest, many homeowners think of our local mistletoe as a weed to be eliminated from their trees. A healthy tree can tolerate massive patches of mistletoe and not be harmed. That is a post for Gardening With Soule. I do hope you will start to see mistletoe in new light after this post. It’s a crop to be harvested!

Historic Note

Some of the information in this article appears in a different form elsewhere in the world. It has been revised and updated here. I first wrote of it in my book Father Kino’s Herbs, and then in a 2014 blog post with the Savor Sisters. History of the Savor the Southwest website.

Bibliography for this Article

Anonymous. 2024. pers. comm.

Felger, R. S. and M. B. Moser. 1985. People of the Desert and Sea. University of Arizona Press, Tucson, AZ.

Hodgson, W. C. 2001. Food Plants of the Sonoran Desert. University of Arizona Press, Tucson, AZ.

Kearny T. H. and Peebles R. H., et al. 1960. Arizona Flora. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Rea, A. M. 1997. At the Desert’s Green Edge. University of Arizona Press, Tucson, AZ.

Soule, J. A. 2011. Father Kino’s Herbs: Growing & Using Them Today. Tierra del Sol Institute Press. Tucson, AZ.

Tohono O’odham Nation (s.d.). When Everything Was Real: An Introduction to Papago Desert Foods. Tohono O’odham Nation, Sells, AZ. (note – sometime circa 1979)

Legal Notes

© Article copyright Savor the Southwest // Jacqueline A. Soule. All rights reserved. You must ask permission to republish an entire blog post or article. Okay to use a short excerpt but you must give proper credit. You must include a link back to the original post on our site. No stealing photos.

Disclaimer

The authors of this website have researched the edibility of the materials we discuss, however, humans vary in their ability to tolerate different foods, drinks, and herbs. Individuals consuming flowers, plants, animals or derivatives mentioned in this blog do so entirely at their own risk. The authors on this site cannot be held responsible for any adverse reaction. In case of doubt please consult your medical practitioner.

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