GARDENING: Under the mistletoe

By Sara Moran, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Horticulture Agent for Midland and Ector Counties

I was listening to Taylor Swift’s song (Christmas Tree Farm) where mistletoe is mentioned in a romantic scenario as you might have seen mistletoe on many season decorations or Hallmark movies (come on! Don’t tell me you never watch a Holiday Hallmark movie!). But mistletoe is as romantic as we know it? Well, keep reading!

Mistletoe is characterized by its green leaves and small, white berries. You can find mistletoe in many parts of the world, and — are you ready for this? — mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grows on various trees, extracting nutrients from its host.

There are different species of mistletoe. The American mistletoe — called oak mistletoe — occurs throughout the United States and affects deciduous trees. Tree species affected include oak, sugarberry, cherry, sycamore, elm, and more. While American mistletoe affects deciduous trees, it does have a counterpart that attacks coniferous trees (commonly known as evergreens). Dwarf mistletoe, like American mistletoe, is also a parasite, and several species exist. Dwarf mistletoe spreads by sticky pressurized seeds that, when burst, can spread upwards of 50 feet. The seeds then adhere to the surfaces of nearby trees (Texas A&M Forest Service). Birds, attracted by the berries, can also help disperse the seeds.

Mistletoe has a unique way of obtaining nutrients: it produces a haustorium (root-like) structure that penetrates the host tree’s bark and connects to its vascular system, allowing mistletoe to extract water and nutrients; this can lead to a reduction in the host plant’s overall nutrient supply, potentially affecting its growth, development, and overall health.

Mistletoe could also negatively impact the photosynthesis process (converting carbon dioxide and water into sugar and oxygen), which could be detrimental to the plant’s health, affecting normal plant development. Plant hosts can experience stunted growth as the mistletoe competes with the host for resources. According to the Texas A&M Forest Service, a mistletoe infection could weaken the tree’s ability to fight off other parasites or properly compartmentalize decay and wounds.

Management practices for mistletoe include mechanical control. First, remove the mistletoe before it produces seeds; cut at least one foot below the point where it is attached to remove the haustoria. Additionally, consider hiring an ISA Certified Arborist who can diagnose and recommend the proper treatment.

Over time, and after the ugly truth, mistletoe has been associated with love and fertility, which has led to the custom of exchanging kisses under the mistletoe during the Christmas season. Today, mistletoe is a popular decoration during the holiday season with influences from different cultures. Personally, mistletoes are my only favorite artificial plant. You now know why.

Finally, I am sorry for delivering this news during the season. Now, take a deep breath and enjoy the Holidays!

If you have questions or want more information, contact your Texas A&M County Extension Office in Midland (432-686-4700) and Ector (432-498-4071) counties. You can also send an email to [email protected].