Tree Health: Mistletoe, more than just a photo op

Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that can be found growing on various tree species, including our live oak trees and other hardwoods. Live oaks (Quercus virginiana) are susceptible to mistletoe infestations, just like many other tree species. Oak mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum), is a native hemiparasite and is frequently found in the canopies of our trees. It has over 105 host species. Mistletoe can make its own chlorophyll, and is an evergreen so it is easily spotted in the winter when trees lose their leaves. However, it may also be more noticeable when a tree is declining and has sparse leaves.

Unlike moss and lichen species, mistletoe plants attach themselves to the branches or trunks of host trees through a modified root-like structure and draw nutrients and water from the tree, which can weaken the host over time.  While mistletoe itself is not harmful to humans, it can affect the health and growth of the tree it infects. Mistletoe is often spread by birds that eat the plant’s sticky berries and then deposit the seeds on branches when they perch on trees. Once the seeds take root, the mistletoe plant begins to grow and establish itself on the host tree.

Mistletoe. UF Photo taken 12-21-21.

Mistletoe is slow-growing. Healthy trees can tolerate small mistletoe infestations but may be weakened and prone to breaking if put under additional stress. Mistletoe is very hardy and persistent, making control and management difficult. Pruning infected branches can help reduce the spread of mistletoe, but it may not completely eradicate the problem.

Here are some steps to consider when removing mistletoe:

Identify the extent of the infestation: Determine how much mistletoe is present on the tree and whether it’s localized or spread throughout the canopy.

Pruning: If the infestation is limited to a few branches, you can remove the affected branches with mistletoe. Prune infected branches one to two feet below the affected area; if located on a main limb or trunk, remove the top of the mistletoe and wrap the cut with an opaque plastic to prevent sunlight. Mistletoe requires light and will die within a couple of years if left covered. Use clean and sharp pruning tools to make precise cuts. It’s crucial to prune the branches back to the nearest healthy branch collar.

Dispose of the mistletoe properly: Mistletoe berries can contain seeds that may further spread the plant. To prevent this, dispose of the removed mistletoe in a sealed bag and discard it in the trash. Do not compost the mistletoe.

Consider the tree’s health: If the tree is already weakened or diseased, removing large amounts of mistletoe may not be the best course of action. In such cases, consulting with an arborist is advisable to assess the tree’s overall health and determine the best approach.

Prevent future infestations: Regularly inspect your trees for signs of new mistletoe growth, especially during the winter when the plant is more visible due to the deciduous trees losing their leaves. Promptly remove any new infestations to prevent them from spreading.

Keep in mind that mistletoe removal from trees can be a complex and delicate process, and it’s often best to seek assistance from a professional arborist. They have the expertise to handle mistletoe removal properly and can provide advice on tree health and preventive measures to reduce the risk of future infestations while minimizing potential harm to the tree.


Posted: July 31, 2023


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