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.


Is Mistletoe Harmful?

Mistletoe spreads and grows relatively slowly and is rarely considered an immediate threat to tree health. Healthy trees are able to tolerate a few mistletoe plants with little harmful effect. Trees that are heavily infested with mistletoe may become less vigorous, stunted, and can possibly be killed if subjected to additional stress from drought, extreme temperatures, root damage, insect infestation or disease.

Like many organisms that at first appear to only be pests, mistletoe also has some benefits. It is tremendously valuable to wildlife, particularly birds and insects. For most property owners, the presence of mistletoe should not be considered a threat, but instead a sign of a diverse ecosystem.


Controlling Mistletoe

If mistletoe is growing on trees in your yard the best thing you can do for them is to provide extra water during drought and an annual spring application of slow release fertilizer. In addition, apply a two- to three-inch layer of mulch around trees from the trunk out to the edge of the canopy. This will reduce competition from grass, conserve moisture, and protect trees from injury by mowing equipment.

If there are trees on your property where mistletoe growth cannot be tolerated, you can control it by pruning out the infested branches. Simply cutting the mistletoe back flush with the branch will not kill this parasite, though it will help slow its growth and spread. In a tree where many branches would have to be removed to rid it of mistletoe, cutting down the entire tree may be the better option since removing multiple branches is harmful to trees.

Pruning trees to remove mistletoe is best done in winter by a certified arborist. Certified arborists are highly qualified tree professionals who have passed the certified arborist exam offered through the International Society of Arboriculture. A list of certified arborists practicing in North Carolina can be found on their website, www.isa-arbor.com.


Use with Care

If you are considering harvesting mistletoe to bring indoors during the holiday, be sure to place it carefully. All parts of our native mistletoe are poisonous, especially the white berries. While an average adult would have to eat several berries before becoming sick, pets and children may be more sensitive. Make sure to keep mistletoe well out of their reach.


Learn More!

Contact your local Extension office to learn more about caring for trees and other plants. If you live in Pender County, call 259-1235. In New Hanover County, call 798-7660. In Brunswick County call 253-2610, or visit http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/to find your local office. Visit the Pender Gardener blogto stay up to date with all the latest gardening news, http://pendergardener.blogspot.com/.


Charlotte Glen is a Horticulture Agent with Pender County Cooperative Extension of NC State University, College of Agriculture & Life Sciences. She can be reached via e-mail at Charlotte_Glen@ncsu.edu.