For Love of Mistletoe

Mistletoe has friends and foes. Some people want to know how they can grow it. Others desperately want to get rid of it. This time of year, the ayes win. With its dark-green, leathery leaves and milky-white berries, mistletoe is a beloved holiday decoration. In its natural environment, mistletoe adorns the boughs of trees, which play host to this semi-parasitic plant. It's "semi" because the plant is capable of making its own food through photosynthesis. But mistletoe depends on live trees to survive. It has root-like structures that tap into the flow of water and nutrients in the tree. The tree also provides physical support for the mistletoe plant, a small shrub that can grow to 3 feet in diameter.

Some commercial tree-growers consider mistletoe a pest because heavy infestations can eventually weaken trees, and eradication may be necessary. But mistletoe is a natural part of forest ecosystems, providing food and shelter for wildlife. Some birds and squirrels nest in the plants, and the berries are important in the diet of birds. The larvae of the great purple hairstreak butterfly feed exclusively on leaves of American mistletoe—also commonly called oak mistletoe or Christmas mistletoe.

As for ridding trees of mistletoe, the only safe and reliable way is to prune the offending branches (removing the plants is ineffective, as they will resprout). But keep in mind that pruning too many limbs from heavily infested trees will do more harm than the mistletoe.

To cultivate mistletoe on your own, take a cue from the birds, which are the primary dispersers of the seed. The berries consist of sticky pulp that contains the seed. One way that birds spread mistletoe seeds is by wiping their bills against a branch after they eat the berries, to clean off the pulp. The seeds stick to tree limbs and sprout there. To propagate mistletoe, crush a ripe berry and rub it onto a twig, preferably from the previous season's growth. (Be sure you use our native mistletoe, Phoradendron leucarpum.) Choose a deciduous tree that is susceptible to mistletoe—oaks, maples and other hardwoods are good candidates. If the seed germinates, the first leaf shoots may appear during the first year. Female plants will produce berries in about five years.

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