Field of Science

Australasian Mistletoes

Australia is home to a fair diversity of parasitic mistletoes, nearly ninety species in all. In a previous post, I described one of our most remarkable species, the terrestrial Nuytsia floribunda. But, of course, the remaining species occupy the more typical aerial mistletoe habitat, growing directly attached to the branches and trunk of their host. And within Australia, the most diverse mistletoe genus is Amyema.

Amyema pendula growing on Acacia, copyright Groogle.

Species of Amyema are found in southeast Asia, Australia, and islands of the Pacific as far east as Samoa. A revision of the genus by Barlow (1992) recognised 92 species with the greatest diversity in the Philippines, Australia and New Guinea. They are found in a range of habitats, from wet rainforests to arid woodlands. Some species (particularly in arid habitats) grow from a single central haustorium (the structure by which a parasitic plant attaches to and draws nutrients from its host); others (particularly rainforest species) produce numerous haustoria from runners stretching along the outside of the host. Most rainforest species tend to have low host specificity but those growin in arid habitats may be more likely to restrict themselves to a small number of host species. Those species which restrict themselves to a single host may have leaves closely resembling that host, making them difficult to spot within the host canopy.

Amyema species are mostly characterised by their flowers which are typical borne in triads with the triads often then being clustered in loose umbels. In some species, the triads are reduced to pairs or single flowers. The flowers themselves are bird-pollinated and have four to six long petals that are generally separated right to the base, at most forming only a very short tube at the base of the flower. The flowers are hermaphroditic though a study of some Australian species by Bernhardt et al. (1980) found a tendency for anthers to mature before the stigma, presumably to prevent self-pollination.

Flowers of Amyema miquelii, copyright Kevin Thiele.

Not surprisingly, attention on mistletoes in Australia has commonly been focused on their effect on host trees. Mistletoe infestations may be heavy and have commonly been blamed for tree mortalities. However, one might legitimately question whether mistletoes themselves cause fatalities: does mistletoe infestation cause a host tree to become unhealthy, or are unhealthy trees more vulnerable to infestation by mistletoes? A study by Reid et al. (1992) on Amyema preissii infesting Acacia victoriae found that, though there was a relationship between mistletoe volume and host mortality, they were unable to demonstrate that mistletoe removal improved host survival. Conversely, such a positive effect was found by Reid et al. (1994) for removal of Amyema miquelii growing on two Eucalyptus species (the methods of this latter study also include the great line, "the highest mistletoes had to be shot down with a .22 rifle"). However, the authors remained conservative when it came to advocating mistletoe removal. Not only do a number of native birds and other animals depend on mistletoes for food and nesting sites, mistletoe removal can be an expensive process and may not itself be devoid of adverse effects on the host tree. Where rates of infestation are not extreme, it may still be better to just live and let live.


Barlow, B. A. 1992. Conspectus of the genus Amyema Tieghem (Loranthaceae). Blumea 36: 293–381.

Bernhardt, P., R. B. Knox & D. M. Calder. 1980. Floral biology and self-incompatibility in some Australian mistletoes of the genus Amyema (Loranthaceae). Australian Journal of Botany 28: 437–451.

Reid, N., D. M. Stafford Smith & W. N. Venables. 1992. Effect of mistletoes (Amyema preissii) on host (Acacia victoriae) survival. Australian Journal of Ecology 17: 219–222.

Reid, N., Z. Yan & J. Fittler. 1994. Impact of mistletoes (Amyema miquelii) on host (Eucalyptus blakelyi and Eucalyptus melliodora) survival and growth in temperate Australia. Forest Ecology and Management 70: 55–65.


  1. "Those species which restrict themselves to a single host may have leaves closely resembling that host"

    Is the reason for such mimicry known? It's presumably not to fool the host itself ...

    1. I was wondering the same thing. I suppose it might possibly help hide the mistletoe from browsers that might otherwise preferentially target the more nutrient-dense mistletoe foliage. This might also correlate with mimicry being more common in open-environment species where the mistletoes are more visible from a distance. I would think that this would only work from a distance, though, as up close other selective cues such as odour would probably be more significant (at least for mammalian browsers).

      I also contemplated whether the resemblance between mistletoe and host foliage might not be mimicry per se but parallel adaptation to living in the same environmental conditions, but surely the host trees share their environment with other tree species that do not have the exact same type of foliage.


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