Pender Gardener


Mistletoe is easy to spot in bare tree limbs during winter.

Published: Wednesday, December 19, 2012 at 10:37 AM.

Mistletoe: Friend or Foe?

Mistletoe is a common plant throughout North Carolina that can be found growing on the branches of deciduous trees. This same mistletoe is often harvested and brought indoors during the holidays, where it is surreptitiously hung in doorways to provide an excuse for stealing a kiss. Though often considered a pest, there are several things that should be considered before deciding if this plant is a friend or foe.


Mistletoe Biology

While mistletoe can grow on more than 100 different types of trees, including pecan, hickory, oak, and black gum, it is most often found in our area high in the branches of red maple and water oak. Mistletoe is a small evergreen shrub that is semi-parasitic on other plants. Instead of producing roots in the ground, mistletoe sends out root like structures into tree branches, from which it steals water and nutrients. The tree the mistletoe grows upon is known as its host. As a green plant, mistletoe does contain chlorophyll and is able to make some of its own food, so it does not completely deplete its host tree.

Mistletoe is most easily seen in winter. Look for ball shaped green masses up to three-feet wide connected to otherwise bare tree branches. Each mass in a tree is an individual mistletoe plant and a single tree may have only a few or many mistletoe plants growing in it. Birds are responsible for spreading mistletoe by seed. They relish its white berries, which ripen in early winter. When birds feed on these berries, the seed inside passes through them surrounded by a sticky film that helps the seed stick to tree branches when it comes out the other end. Areas where trees are heavily infested with mistletoe are often indicative of a healthy bird population.


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