Tag Archives: weird nature


In the middle of Winter, in our temperate climate, you might not think there’s much nature to be seen. But, right now, with leaves off the deciduous trees, it’s the best time of the year to spot a freaky plant parasite of trees. Plants grow so slowly, that you might think they’re not very lively, or even boring. Look closer, though, and be patient, and you might see that plants are perfectly capable of as much drama and violence as animals are, if given enough time. From competition to chemical warfare, plants are actually fairly exciting, and this post is all about the most famous plant parasite of all.

Mistletoe is the common name of a family of related plants, the Santalaceae, nearly all of which are parasites of other plants, mostly trees. During the Summer, when their host trees are covered in leaves, you might not even know they’re there, but in Winter, the mistletoe growing on the tree is exposed, evergreen, when the rest of the tree is left bare. From a distance, mistletoe growing in a tree looks like this:

Green, bushy mistletoe in a bare tree.

By Lienhard Schulz (Own work) CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s a little green bush, perched in the branches of a tree. How does it happen? Well, here in Kentucky, we mostly have Phoradendron leucarpum, which makes white berries.

Eastern white mistletoe berries.

By Joe Decruyenaere (originally posted to Flickr as 010408 080) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Although the berries are poisonous to mammals, birds love them, and eat them, pooping out the seeds on the branches of trees, and then the seeds germinate. The seeds sprout, but instead of making roots like other plants, they make a structure called a haustorium which penetrates and connects with the host plants’ vascular system through the bark, delivering nutritious sap to the mistletoe. These little green vampires continue to suck the sap of their hosts while also growing green leaves and stems, in the form of a bushy growth. Our mistletoe is capable of making its own sugars with sunlight energy, just like regular plants, to some extent, but it can’t make roots and instead literally taps into the host to get what it needs.

mistletoe on a branch, chillin' like a villain.

By Loadmaster (David R. Tribble) This image was made by Loadmaster (David R. Tribble) Email the author: David R. Tribble Also see my personal gallery at Google Photos (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

A few mistletoe bushes won’t hurt a healthy tree, but one that’s already sick could be killed by a very heavy infestation. Mistletoe bushes are just like plant leeches, if, instead of biting, a leech actually grafted itself to you, interconnecting your arteries with itself. I also just found out that some South African mistletoes – like Viscum minimum – don’t even go as far as to make a little bush. They don’t photosynthesize to any noticeable extent, living almost entirely inside their Euphorba succulent host, bursting out only to flower and set fruit.

Tiny Visicum minimum plant growths, barely noticeable on the surface of a succulent, like plant acne. Plantcne?

By Frank Vincentz (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Look at those tiny Viscum minimum plant growths, barely noticeable on the surface of a succulent, like plant acne. Plantcne? So cute, yet so creepy. Here’s the flowers:

Tiny Viscum minimum flowers.

By Frank Vincentz (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Like Alien chestbursters, but permanently attached. And cute.

Have a safari in your own neighborhood this Winter. Look for mistletoe bushes. Notice birds – we’ve got different birds staying here in Winter, compared to Summer. Listen for Great Horned Owls staking out a territory. Even in Winter, nature never sleeps, and there’s wonders all around you, if you just keep aware of them. Including the weird tree-leeches known as mistletoe.

Duck Duck Goose

The ducks and geese have paired up for the spring, and you know that this means! Goose attacks are going to be pretty likely. Don’t get Tyrannosaurus rek’d by a goose. They can be very aggressive, especially when nesting.


If you can see these, the parents aren’t far behind…

An adult goose can weigh 15 lbs, so be careful.

As for the ducks, here’s a fun experiment to try. Go look at some mallard ducks. You can find them in parks with ponds, or other places near water. Usually, the males have green heads. Compare the number of males (drakes) to the females (ducks). Notice anything unusual? I’ll hide what you’ll probably find out in this bracket, in white text. Click and drag between the brackets to reveal the spoilers. [ There will probably be more drakes than ducks, by a pretty large margin. ] Weird, huh. Why do you think that is? Click and drag for the answer.

[ Females sit on the nest and are more vulnerable to predators, which probably leads to to the sex imbalance. Birds have a similar sex determination system to us mammals, so you can assume that there’s an even number of male and female ducklings hatched. ]

And that’s not all the duck weirdness going on. If you saw the ducks at just the right time, in mid-summer, you might not have noticed any drakes at all. Ducks moult completely, losing all their feathers, and, while they grow back in, they’re flightless, and very shy. Right after this, and before growing in their breeding plumage for the fall, the drakes’ feathers come in looking just like a duck. This brief, non-breeding plumage is called eclipse plumage. The only way to tell while the males are in eclipse is that male mallard ducks’ bills are yellowy or olive, not orange-y black.

drake/duck pair

This is a drake/duck pair of ducks. The drake is the one with the green head.

drake in eclipse

This is actually a drake mallard, disguised as a ladytypes duck, which are supposed to be camouflaged against predators anyway.

If you want to take your bird-observing to the next level, check out the Bird Guide from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Or, check out a handy, portable, and comprehensive identification key from the library. Ducks are really odd, actually. If you want to do more than dabble in a different sort of dabblers, read this book for a deep dive into the wood ducks, the most fabulous of all ducks. Ducks and geese hatch ready to follow the parents around, and start life out with a leap from the nest. Watch hooded merganser ducklings take the plunge.

Happy duck-watching!