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Okeechobee, FL 34972-2578

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December 20, 2006

Quick Links:   Facts & Fiction   Careful with Mistletoe    Holiday Decorations    References    

Feature Article - for release the week of December 24, 2006

Dan Culbert - Extension Horticulture Agent

Holidays are Sealed with Mistletoe

Many years ago, when I was at school in Gainesville, the holidays crept up too quickly for my budget.  Classes were finally out, I was headed for home, but the big question was how to raise the funds needed to have nice gifts for my family.  I was always told that money didn’t grow on trees, but I wasn’t so sure.

Up in the branches of bare Florida trees were clumps of green.  I took a closer look and realized that this was an unusual plant associated with the holidays - Mistletoe.  My thinking went something like this: how about if I collect a whole bunch of Mistletoe, take it up home, and sell it to the florists up there for lots of Christmas present money!

mistletoe clumps in laurel oaks

As local oaks loose their leaves in the short Florida winter season, clumps of Oak mistletoe are easily seen on local trees.  Photo Dan Culbert, UF/IFAS

Mistletoe growing from branch  Mistletoe (green stems) grew from the crotch of this branch (above arrow).  It was well protected from recent storms, and would be difficult to remove without removing the entire tree branch. Photo Dan Culbert, UF/IFAS  
Dan cutting mistletoe

If the trees are not tool tall, an effective tool for removal of Mistletoe is a pruning pole.  Photo: Angela Sachson, UF/IFAS

Harvesting mistletoe for decorations 

Clumps of Oak Mistletoe may measure several feet across.  This clump provided enough cuttings for 15-20 decorative sprigs. Photo: Angela Sachson, UF/IFAS

A classmate of mine helped shoot it out of the laurel oaks and pecan trees in his pastures; I filled up lots of large plastic bags of greenery and stuffed them in the back of my pickup.  Soon I was on the road to riches….Oklahoma state flower

Unfortunately, when I arrived at the northern florist shops, they said I was too late in their holiday plant sales season for them to be interested.  Other retailers I approached were scared of the poisonous nature of Mistletoe, and felt their customers would prefer imitation plastic sprigs that could be boxed up and reused another year.

So instead of being flush with cash to be the King of Christmas Consumerism, everyone, except those with small kids and pets, got a pretty hanging bouquet of “Fresh from Florida” Mistletoe. 

Ever since, I’ve always wondered if this plant could be a cottage industry for Floridians to help spread the Christmas spirit, raise a little holiday cash, and help the health of our urban forest by removing this parasite from trees. 

Mistletoe Facts and Fiction

What’s the fascination with this plant?  First off, it has an unusual habit of growing out of the trunks of certain trees.  It has its own distinctive green leaves, stems and white berries with a sticky seed inside.  As a small seedling, it roots into the bark and wood of a tree and makes a connection with the growing ring of the host.  So it makes its own food, but this “Vampire plant” is a parasite, as it steals the water and nutrients from its host tree. 

American mistletoe foliage

American Mistletoe plants have deep green jointed stems and rounded leaves. Branches and foliage grow opposite each other on the stems. In the fall and winter, they produce clusters of white berries. Photo Dan Culbert, UF/IFAS

Mistletoe berries

White fruit of the American Mistletoe contains one seed in a very sticky flesh.  When birds eat the fruit, they have a difficult time getting it off their beak, and rub against tree bark to clean themselves.  The seed remains on a new tree, ready to grow on another host plant. Photo Dan Culbert, UF/IFAS 

American Mistletoe drawingThe American or Oak Mistletoe (Phorandendron serotinum) only grows in deciduous trees. In our area this usually means laurel oaks, but sycamores, hackberries, elms, and wild cherry are also know hosts.  Oak Mistletoe can be found on trees from Kansas to New Jersey, but different species of Mistletoe are pests on certain western junipers and pines, while others are found on deciduous European trees.

Because Mistletoe shows its evergreen foliage when a deciduous tree drops its leaves, it was thought to have some magical powers.  That’s where the Celtic Druids (their priests) got the idea that it has magical powers.  Scandinavian mythology was adapted by the English and French, and gave us the custom of kissing under bunches hung around the holidays.  Here in the US, it’s a Christmas tradition to display Mistletoe, while in Europe, it’s more of a New Year’s tradition.

Careful with Mistletoe

Inside this mythology is a little bit of fact. Between 1985 and 1992, US poison control centers reported 1,754 cases of accidental poisoning of children or pets with mistletoe. This accidental ingestion of American Mistletoe can be harmful in rare cases, so use caution when the display of this plant may come in contact with it.

In Florida Yards, removing mistletoe from a tree may help, especially if the tree has been compromised by pests, storms or old age.  There are two methods, neither of which is easy.  It may be cut out of the tree, but be sure that the branch that is “infested” is pruned several inches below the point of attachment.  This kind of pruning can damage the tree’s structure, making the cure worse than the problem.

A second method is to apply a specialized growth regulating chemical to the mistletoe when the host tree is dormant.  It means getting a Pest Control Operator, with the right license and a power sprayer, to make this application between now and early February.  Using this material (Ethephon) later in the year, when the host is actively growing, will hurt the tree. Contact me if you would like to use this Mistletoe management method. Mistletoe Stamp

A Holiday Tradition

So if you want to help your trees, have a fun conversation piece, and maybe get stated in a new horticultural business, consider removing the mistletoe and making holiday decorations from the pruning.  Be sure to take the necessary safety precautions when cutting branches out of trees, including head and eye protection.  And it’s probably a good idea to wash your hands well with soap and water after handling Mistletoe plants.

Last week our new FYN Program Assistant Angela Sachson and Master Gardener Terry Lane spent some time last Thursday at Okeechobee Main Street Farmer’s Market, talking about the concerns with and joys of  Oak Mistletoe.  They made up a number of decorative clumps and provided them to Market visitors. Our website can also show you how to make a decorative Mistletoe sprig and get you ready for that European Kissing tradition on New Years Eve.

Holiday Mistletoe with red ribbon  
Attractive holiday decorations can be made from Mistletoe cuttings by using thin florist wire to wrap several braches together.  Adding a ribbon or two will make it an attractive holiday decoration. Photo Dan Culbert, UF/IFAS

Holiday mistletoe with blue ribbon  

Who could possibly resist stealing a kiss when being caught under a branch of Fresh from Florida Mistletoe? Photo Dan Culbert, UF/IFAS

I’ve placed pictures and more links on our Okeechobee web page,  If you need additional information on mistletoe, please email us at or call us at 863-763-6469.  Local residents can stop by our office at 458 Hwy 98 North in Okeechobee.  Merry Christmas!


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Anonymous. Mistletoe. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 12/20/06. 

Al-Achi, Antoine. "Mistletoe (Viscum album L.)". [In US Pharmacist.Buies Creek, NC: Campbell University School of Pharmacy, 1/19/05. 

Briggs, Jonathan. UK Mistletoe Information Gateway. Gloucestershire, England: Mistletoe Matters Consultancy, 12/20/06. 

Culbert, Daniel F.  "Kiss Karefully with Mistletoe". Okeechobee: UF/IFAS Extension Service, 12/17/03. [This article shows how to make holiday sprigs.]

Florida Master Naturalist Program. American/Oak Mistletoe. Immokalee: UF/IFAS Southwest Florida Research & Education Center, 2002. 

Jacobi, W.R. and Swift,C.E.  Dwarf Mistletoe Management [no. 2.925].  Fort Collins: Colorado State University, Extension Horticulture Program, 5/5/05. 

Pelton, Ron.  Mistletoe. Sun City: The News of Sun City Center, March 2007. P. 17. or click here for pdf

Wichman, Tom.  Mistletoe.  Gainesville: UF/IFAS Extension Service, Gardening in a minute radio show, 12/18/06