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Global Forests -
Little Known or Interesting Factoids About Trees and Tree Physiology

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phoradendron tomentosum

Mistletoe, an evergreen parasitic shrub on other woody plants. Origin of its name “Mistel” is the Anglo-Saxon word for “dung” and “tan” is the word for “twig”. Hence the name, Mistletoe means “dung on a twig”. It's a quasi-parasitic plant, that lives off the host tree. However, it's not a true parasite, because it produces its own chlorophyl. Mistletoe's leathery green leaves contain chlorophyll that lets it make sugar carbon dioxide and water, like all other green plants. Its root system invades the internal tissues of the host tree, extracting water and minerals, and anchors it to the host, Basically, it grows on another plant at its expense.

Mistletoe Branch Attached to host limb

Mistletoe is actually an epiphyte (air plant). Sharing its water and minerals with mistletoe is no problem for healthy trees. But unhealthy trees can sometimes fall to the added stress. Weak, older and unhealthy trees are often hosts for mistletoe. In most cases, mistletoe doesn't damage trees. However, in rare cases of severe infestations, it may cause extreme stress. Infected branches, and even the whole tree, may die.

There are generally two types of mistletoe found in the South is American mistletoe. In the western states, they have dwarf mistletoe, which is very harmful to the host plant, especially conifers.

Leafy mistletoe, blooms in the spring and produces a seed which ripens in the summer. It is then eaten by birds, passes thought their digestive system and is deposited on a branch of another tree where it germinates and infects that tree.

The leaf

The sticky seeds

Leafy mistletoe, the type you see at the Christmas holiday season in part because it's so noticeable in the winter. You see it in trees this time of year because most of its hosts are deciduous and have lost their leaves, it’s there year around. You see mistletoe in trees around homes and cities more often than in undisturbed forests. Mistletoe provides birds, especially mockingbirds, one of the few winter berries around. Mockingbirds are very territorial, and tend to make their homes in areas where humans live. They don't visit from your bird feeder. But they're in your yard driving other birds away. They also perch high in trees, and that's where mistletoe tends to grow. The wind and several bird species spread mistletoe from tree to tree. The birds feed on the white berries, roost in the treetops and deposit the seeds on the branches.

Blue Butterfly

Birds aren't the only ones that benefit from mistletoe. It's the sole host plant of an interesting butterfly called the great blue hairstreak. This butterfly is in the same family as the little blue butterflies you see in the spring. In caterpillar form, the butterfly feeds on mistletoe. Its wingspread is a little over an inch, and the wings reflect a metallic blue when open. If you want to see it in your garden, watch under the trees that host mistletoe.

Why would any one want to control mistletoe? That could mean a holiday kiss, but there is a downside to mistletoe. Leafy mistletoe is the type most people wish to control because it's the most visible and does the most damage on homeowner property. Florel® brand Fruit Eliminator to control both types of mistletoe. In fact, Florel®  brand Fruit Eliminator is the only product registered in the U.S. for this purpose. The best time to control the mistletoe is in the spring on deciduous trees when the weather is warm. The mistletoe is growing and the trees have not quite begun to leaf out yet. Day time temperatures should be at least 65 degrees F. at the time of application and rain should not be expected for at least 24 hours.

To control leafy mistletoe, Florel®  brand Fruit Eliminator plus a surfactant and thoroughly spray the mistletoe bunches according to the label use direction and spray  just the mistletoe bunches. A second application may be necessary. In about 5-7 days after application you will see the leaves and the branches of the mistletoe fall to the ground. This will continue for about three weeks. Since the roots of the mistletoe will not be effected, you may need to repeat this procedure every 3-4 years.

A Heavy Infestation

Out on a limb   

Mechanical control, simply cutting the mistletoe off at its stalk each winter is not a permanent solution but it is better than doing nothing. Breaking off the plant from the tree, this does not remove the root and re-growth will continue. Removing the infected branch at least one foot below the point if infection will prevent re-growth of the parasite. If there is excessive infection throughout the entire tree, it may be better to remove the tree to prevent others trees in the area of infection.

Although birds and butterflies find the berries tasty, they're toxic to humans. When decorating with mistletoe, keep it out of reach of children and pets. The stem and leaves are toxic, too, and can irritate skin. 

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