MistletoeFriend or Foe in the Garden

by BJ Jarvis, Pasco Cooperative Extension Service
Horticulture Agent and Director



Have you gotten caught under the mistletoe this year?  Probably the last thing you were thinking about while getting your Christmas kisses is wondering where this holiday plant comes from. 

While mistletoe is frequently used for holiday decorating, it is a native plant that can damage trees, especially those that are already in failing health. This usually isn't a problem in healthy trees, however. This parasite doesn’t gather water and nutrients from the soil as most plants do.  Instead it penetrates the upper branches to gather its nourishment from the host plant, usually large trees and oaks such as laurel or water oaks.  

Parasitic mistletoe is far more troublesome to trees than epiphytic plants that share life on other plants while doing them no harm. Epiphyte is the scientific name for plants that depend on another plant for support, but not for nourishment.  Examples in Florida include ball moss and other bromeliads, lichen, orchids, and the common sphagnum moss. 

Once established on a host, mistletoe grows very quickly and can live for years while the host plant is steadily weakened, potentially even dying. Pruning the mistletoe will help.  Years ago in Georgia, mistletoe gatherers typically shot the parasite out of the tree.  In our rapidly developing county, that may not be the best approach. Be sure to move at least 6” beyond the point of attachment (closer to the ground) for the pruning cuts, as the “roots” can penetrate far into the tree.   

Those white berries make the plant attractive; but be careful as they are also toxic for children and pets when ingested. Hmm.  I wonder if that is why mistletoe was hung high in doorways, keeping it well out of reach of children.

Long the symbol of peace and love and passion, hang mistletoe in the doorway as a festive decoration, but if you see it growing on your plants, head to the garden shed for the pruners.