Tapinanthus rubromarginatus [Engl.] Danser

Family: (Loranthaceae)
Common names:
Red Mistletoe, Bird Lime, Lighted Candles;Voelent, Vuurhoutijies (A)

Tapinanthus rubromarginatus

This is a semi-parasitic aerial shrub with specialized roots called haustoria that grow into the wood of the host plant and extract soil minerals and moisture from the host tree. It has a semi-parasitic relationship with the host tree, it does contain chlorophyll in the leaves which allows it to produce its own food. Although it is not specific to only one host tree species it is generally always found on the same species in any given area.

The name Tapinanthus is derived from the Greek tapeinos meaning low or humble and anthos meaning flower. The specific name rubro meaning red and marginatus meaning margin, in reference to the red colour of the leaf margin.

This species has developed a very unique ecological relationship with birds which it uses to both pollinate its flowers as well as disperse its seed.

The pollination of the flowers is mostly done by sunbirds which enjoy the copious amounts of nectar produced by the attractive red flowers. Upon visiting the flower the bird is dabbed on its forehead with a puff of pollen which it then transfers to the next flower that it visits.

Many different birds eat the fruit of the mistletoes and inside the sweet fruit is a seed that is coated with thick, sticky glue. After eating the fruit the sticky seed gets stuck to the birds' beak, the bird then wipes it off on the nearest branch where it sticks until it germinates. Upon germination the seedling sends its specialized roots into the bark of the host tree.

The sticky glue-like substance is chewed like chewing gum by young African boys until they have accumulated enough to spread it on a branch. Any bird which then settles on that branch will gets its feet stuck to the branch, which makes it easy for the boys to catch the bird.

The specialized roots of mistletoes cause a gall like growth of the host tree at the point of attachment. Once the mistletoe dies, the soft wood of the mistletoe is quickly weathered and leaves behind an interesting wooden structure known as a wood rose. Wood roses are harvested, cleaned, mounted and varnished then sold to tourists as ornamental curios.

Although the red mistletoe does parasitize its host, it does not directly cause the death of the plant that it grows on. It may weaken the plant's resistance to other ailments and overcrowding of mistletoes may cause undue stress to the host. Mistletoes are a wonderful group of plants to have in a garden as they attract a variety of birds with their flowers as well as the fruit.

Growing mistletoes

Most mistletoes can be encouraged to grow in your garden by simply sticking their seed onto a branch of the desired tree. Should growth become excessive, some mistletoes can be cut off to reduce the stress on the host tree Mistletoe species can be cut out to reduce the stress on the host tree.Most trees will live in harmony for many long years with one or more mistletoes, and in fact they will often outlive the mistletoes.


  • Pooley. E 1993. The complete field guide to Trees of Natal, Zululand & Transkei. Natal FloraPublications Trust: Durban.
  • Smith. C.A. 1966. Common Names of South African Plants. The Government Printer: Pretoria.
  • Jackson. W.P. U. 1990. Origins and meanings of names of South African plant genera.UCT Ecolab: Capetown.
  • Arnold, T.H. & De Wet, B.C. (Eds) 1993. Plants of southern Africa: names and distribution. Memoirs of the botanical Survey of South Africa No 62.

Andrew Hankey
Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden
September 2001

To find out if SANBI has seed of this or other SA species, please email our seedroom.

This page forms part of the South African National Biodiversity Institute's plant information website www.plantzafrica.com.