A Christmas icon: The truth behind the mistletoe

Mistletoe, while better known for bring Christmas romance, is actually a parasitic plant that lives on hardwood trees like oaks, pecans, elms, and hackberries. 

Mistletoe is a fun holiday tradition, especially for those looking for some extra Christmas kisses. The mistletoe plant is not quite as romantic as our holiday tradition would have you believe.

Mistletoe (Phoradendron tomentosum) is a parasitic plant that lives on hardwood trees like oaks, pecans, elms, and hackberries. It is an evergreen plant, but we probably notice it more this time of year because the bright green shows up more after the trees drop their leaves.

The female mistletoe plants produce a small, white flower and a seed that is encased in a sticky pulp. The seeds are commonly distributed by birds when they stick to their feet or beaks or pass through their digestive system. If a seed manages to land on small branches and gets enough moisture, it will germinate and form a root-like structure that penetrates the bark of the tree. Mistletoe steals water and nutrients from the tree, but it uses its own chlorophyll from the leaves to make food through photosynthesis.

Mistletoe grows only about one-half inch the first year, but it can grow up to three feet in six to eight years! Mistletoe can to live as long as the tree does. The leaves and stems that you see in the tree might only survive eight years, and it’s easily broken off in storms. Breaking the mistletoe stimulates regrowth of dormant buds, and it just multiplies on its host.

The thought of hosting a parasitic plant sounds terrible, but mistletoe does not do much damage to a tree unless the tree is severely stressed by other conditions like drought. Mistletoe can get out of control in a tree and become unsightly.

Controlling mistletoe in your trees can be difficult! The most effective control method is to prune out the branch where the mistletoe is growing. Be sure to cut at least 12 inches from the growth point to be sure the mistletoe root structure is removed. Before you start pruning multiple branches, consider the aesthetics of your pruning cuts. If you need cut out a lot, it might be better to remove the tree. Chemical control is not recommended because it can easily damage the host tree. One final option is to harvest your mistletoe and share with your sweetheart. The reward might be worth it!

Katherine Whitney is a horticulture extension agent within the Texas A&m AgriLife extension agency.

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