Arizona's Sonora desert is an amazing test of resiliency. The creatures here thrive in the sparse, arid conditions, often using whatever unlikely home they can find. And no, I'm not talking about Arizona's snowbirds who overwinter here from Ohio.

I recently found out you can buy and plant mesquite trees. On purpose.

What's that clump in the mesquite trees
Mesquite trees are everywhere in the desert southwest. But what's the clump in the tree? Background: Val Davidson/TSM // Created with Canva

Many home and garden centers sell them, and you can add them to your landscape like any other tree or bush.

I find this amusing because I just walked ten feet out of my office door and saw tons of mesquite trees. Mesquite trees are the dominant shrub here. You can find them everywhere in our natural landscape. We call them "trees," but according to Wikipedia, they are, in fact, shrubs.

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What's the Ball of Leaves and Stuff in the Mesquite Tree in Arizona?

If you've ever looked closely at a mesquite tree, you might have noticed a tangled ball of what looks like leaves and vines tucked into the branches. Sometimes, the tangled mass is small, but look at older trees, and you might see a larger configuration that nearly takes over the entire tree. That's not a fancy bird nest. It's mistletoe.

What's that clump in the mesquite trees
A mesquite tree overgrown with mistletoe. // Val Davidson/TSM

When you hear the word mistletoe, you think of the romantic Christmas decoration. Well, this isn't the type of mistletoe found in cooler climates. The southwestern variety looks quite different from the type we see over the holidays. The species you'll find here is Desert Mistletoe or Mesquite Mistletoe.

What's that clump in the mesquite trees
The red-tail hawk will nest in mistletoe. Unless they live behind the Townsquare radio station in Sierra Vista. Then they live in our tower. Background: Val Davidson/TSM // Hawk and markings: Created with Canva

READ: Sierra Vista's Radio Station Hawks

According to the UA Cooperative Extension, Mistletoe is a parasitic plant, which means it lives on another plant, like mesquite. The mistletoe steals water and valuable minerals from its host and can eventually kill it if it gets out of control.

What's that clump in the mesquite trees
Mesquite can be a problem when it takes over a tree. // Photo by: Val Davidson/TSM

The problem is that mesquite can spread, and once established, it’s almost impossible to get rid of. Mistletoe doesn't always hurt the tree unless there are a lot of plants on it.

READ: When the Mesquite Sees Its Shadow: Sure Signs of Spring in Arizona

Desert Birds: Living in the Mistletoe

Most desert mistletoe is stringy and not very pretty. While many homeowners try to get rid of it, you might consider leaving it alone if it's not taking over your yard.

What's that clump in the mesquite trees
Birds like the Mourning Dove rely on Mesquite for food. Background: Val Davidson/TSM // Everything else: Canva

Mistletoe is an important part of the desert ecosystem. It spreads thanks to birds.

Some mistletoe species produce small berries, which birds love. When birds eat the berries, they stick to their beaks and feet. As they fly around, they carry the seeds to other plants and trees, spreading the mistletoe to other plants.

What's that clump in the mesquite trees
The spotted owl likes to nest in mesquite. // Canva

Many birds rely on the mistletoe for food and shelter. Mourning Doves, bluebirds, and Phainopepla rely on mistletoe for food. Mistletoe also makes a great shelter. Some owl and hawk species use dense “witches’ brooms” for nesting.

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Gallery Credit: Val Davidson

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