As the year draws to a close and trees shed their leaves I think of mistletoe. A kiss under the mistletoe may seem a harmless holiday tradition, but mistletoe is a somewhat dangerous plant. To begin with, mistletoe is toxic to humans, livestock and pets, so consider a plastic or silk replica for your holiday decor. Mistletoe is injurious to its host tree as well. It is considered a hemiparasite because it makes some of its own food through photosynthesis but takes water and most of its nutrients from the host tree. American or Oak Mistletoe (Phoradendron serotinum) is commonly found on deciduous trees such as pecans, oaks, elms, hackberries, maples and wild cherries.
An infestation of many mistletoe plants may stress a tree to the point where branches die or are weakened, the tree becomes stunted, or possibly dies since it’s no longer able to cope with drought or disease. How do you know if you have mistletoe? When your trees are bare of leaves, examine your branches. If you see a globe of leafy growth about two feet in diameter centered on one of your branches, you have mistletoe.
How did mistletoe infect your tree? Mistletoe has male and female plants. The male plants produce pollen but the females provide small sticky, whitish berries from October to December. Birds eat these berries especially in winter when other food sources are scare. When birds eliminate the still living seeds and one lands on a branch, it forms a seedling that roots through the bark and wood of the tree and connects with the host tree’s growth ring. When that mistletoe plant is several years old, it too, if a female, will produce berries. Individual plants live about ten years and will produce berries that can spread the mistletoe to other trees.
What should you do if you have mistletoe? Prune the affected branch at least one foot below the mistletoe plant. It may be more aesthetically pleasing to cut all the way back to a large lateral branch. If you opt to do the job yourself instead of hiring an arborist, use a pruning pole so you don’t need to climb the tree. Use protective head and eye gear, and gloves. If you accidentally end up handling mistletoe, remember to wash your hands with warm, soapy water.
For more information, visit http://gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu/care/weeds-and-invasive-plants/mistletoe.html. If you have questions or concerns, check with the Master Gardeners at 671-8400 for additional information that you may need.
By Diane Otis, Marion County Master Gardener