Try growing (if you dare): parasitic plants

Did you know that the Illawarra is home to sixteen species of parasitic plant? Yes, we  have everything from the crazy strangling Dodder Vine (Cuscuta tasmanica), to small trees like the Cherry Ballart (Exocarpos cupressiformis) and a bunch of fascinating Mistletoe plants that grow like enormous leathery bunches of seaweed off the branches of trees. 

Very few people seem to cultivate them, though. Partly because they're not available and partly because people don't like the sound of them. A parasitic plant is, after all, one that exploits another plant to gain nutrition or water. Doesn't sound that nice does it?

Despite their lack of profile and bad reputation, some of them - like the Mistletoes - are very attractive and can be managed in a garden situation. If you can get hold of them that is! Another limitation is that most species grow naturally on eucalypts, and so need to be in a garden big enough to fit one.

Most of the local Mistletoes are in the Loranthaceae family. They tend to have colourful red and yellow flowers, and grow on plants in the Myrtaceae family (as well as some others). 


These are the leathery leaves and distinctive flowers of the Drooping Mistletoe (Amyema 
 pendula), a large parasitic plant that can often be seen on Eucalypts as drooping 'beards' of
brown-green foliage. It also grows on Wattles. Image by Emma Rooksby. 
This is the flower of the Creeping Mistletoe (Muellerina eucalyptoides), one of two local Muellerina species. A
single open flower is flanked by a few spent flowers. Image by Tony Markham.
All that sounded rather off-putting, I fear, so here are some positives about Mistletoes. The fruit of some are edible (e.g. Drooping Mistletoe) and considered to be quite tasty. The fruit are also enjoyed by Mistletoebirds, small Robin-like birds the males of which have colourful red, white and black plumage. These birds excrete the sticky seeds which cling onto trees' branches and may germinate to form new Mistletoe plants. So if you want to increase your chances seeing Mistletoebirds, grow their favourite food! 

And in fact Mistletoes are likely to attract other birds too. A 2004 article from ABC Science lists several other species that eat the fruit, including Woodswallows, Bowerbirds, Cockatoos and Ravens. An Australian study also found that Mistletoes have a major positive impact on the richness and distribution of plant and bird species. They are definitely a good bird all-rounder. 

Bonus fact: the Mistletoes also attract the Common Jezebel butterfly (Delias nigrina), a large and colourful butterfly that can be present throughout the year. 

Three of the local Mistletoes are in the Viscaceae family. Perhaps the most interesting of these is the Jointed Mistletoe (Korthsalsella rubra), which looks rather like young children's drawings of hands. Sadly I don't have a shareable photo of this species but you can see it on Flickr here

The region is also home to some Dodder-laurels (Cassytha species), a kind of twining creeper that parasitises a wide range of other species. While they are most common on the Sydney sandstone soil west of the escarpment cliffline, they also occur in areas of the Illawarra with sandy soil.

To find out more about Australian Mistletoes, this site is comprehensive. And Birds in Backyards have a great profile of the Mistletoebird

Have you grown any parasitic plants in your garden?

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