Mistletoe

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Mistletoe is a parasite, meaning that is derives most or all of its nutrition from a host plant. In the case of mistletoe, the plant still photosynthesizes; however, it steals water and nutrients from the host plant. In this way, mistletoes do not have to compete with other plants for nutrients in the soil.

Seedling mistletoe establishes its connection with the host almost immediately by penetrating the bark with root-like structures. These “roots” will eventually reach up and down the inside of the infected branch. Leaves will begin appearing in about a year. The plant is perennial, meaning it comes back year after year, although mistletoe is the most obvious in the winter when the deciduous trees that it parasitizes lose their leaves.

At first, growth will be slow. After several years, however, mistletoe plants can be several feet in diameter. In mid-autumn, small white berries form and enlarge until winter. Berries are eaten by birds and transported to neighboring branches or trees. The seed passes through the bird unharmed and its sticky coating helps it to adhere to the tree bark.

Mistletoes are found south of a line drawn across the United States from New Jersey to Oregon; they are sensitive to freezing temperatures. The mistletoe is found on its preferred hosts: water, willow, and red oak, pecan, hickory, hackberry, and green ash. Mistletoes are poisonous to humans and should not be used around young children.

So is mistletoe harmful to trees? The answer is yes and no. Obviously as I explained before, mistletoe plants drain the tree of water and nutrients. However, unless the infection is severe, they will not usually cause death of the host tree. Mistletoe can weaken the tree and predispose it to other diseases or ailments.

If you spot mistletoe in one of your deciduous trees, don’t panic. The easiest correction is to cut out infected branches as soon as you spot infestations. Be sure to prune back beyond the original point 6 – 12 inches to remove all “roots” within the branch. If any living tissue is left, it can regenerate into a whole plant. There is no need to destroy or burn the branch, since the parasite will die quickly without water. If you are creative, you can use your homegrown mistletoe sprigs for holiday decoration!

If the mistletoe is in a spot that cannot be removed simply be pruning (the trunk or large structural branches), cut the mistletoe flush with the bark. Then wrap the area in a few layers of black plastic or cloth. This treatment may need to be redone, but the mistletoe will die in a few years.

So how did the custom of kissing under a poisonous, parasitic plant come about? Early Europeans were also fascinated with this plant and established many legends. Probably the Norse myth of Balder is the source of our kissing custom. According to the myth, a mistletoe arrow or spear killed the Norse god Balder, the god of sunlight and vegetation. His mother, Frigga, the goddess of love and beauty, was so distraught that he tears turned into the white berries of the mistletoe.

The gods restored Balder to life and Frigga declared that mistletoe would bring love, never death again. Legend states that those lingering under the mistletoe would be bestowed by a kiss from Frigga, hence our tradition of kissing under the mistletoe.

Mistletoe is a fun addition to the holiday season. Pucker up! For more information on mistletoe contact our Center at 919-775-5624.

Written By

Rhonda Gaster, N.C. Cooperative ExtensionRhonda GasterCounty Extension Administrative Assistant Call Rhonda Email Rhonda N.C. Cooperative Extension, Lee County Center
Posted on Dec 21, 2015
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