COLUMN: Mistletoe: Christmas decoration or oak-sucking parasite? | News

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Mistletoe is all too familiar during the holiday season. Many hang a fake mistletoe over a door inside their home to prank or steal a kiss from a loved one. Now that all the leaves have fallen, if you drive through Cherokee County and look at the canopies of mature oak trees along the road, you’ll likely see small patches of green growth there. This is mistletoe in its natural setting.

It is probably Phoradendron leucarpum, otherwise known as American mistletoe or oak mistletoe, which is one of the most common species in our area. This species is native to Oklahoma and other parts of North America alongside other species such as p. californicum and p. tomentosum.

The mistletoe of European folklore is of the same family but belongs to a different genus – viscum album – from the North American mistletoe species. Although we use different species of mistletoe for our decorations, the customs associated with European mistletoe were transferred to North American mistletoe when European settlers began to immigrate and bring their customs to North America.

Mistletoe is a partial parasite. It can make its own food through photosynthesis, but it also sends roots into the vascular tissue of the host tree to obtain water and nutrients. Mistletoe is spread by birds that eat the mistletoe fruits and seeds, then drop the seeds on the branches of nearby trees in their droppings. The seeds germinate and send up rootlets during the winter.

Large populations of mistletoe can severely stunt the tree’s growth and may even kill it over time. Most of the time, there are only one or two clumps of mistletoe in the canopy of a mature tree. Situations like this normally do not require human intervention because the mistletoe infestation is not large enough to harm the tree.

If mistletoe is a problem, there is a product that can help get rid of it. Monterey Lawn and Garden Products’ Florel brand fruit eliminator helps control mistletoe and can be sprayed on mistletoe any time after leaf drop from host trees in mid-winter.

This product can also be used in the spring to eliminate harmful fruit such as sweetgum balls, unwanted apples, crabapples, cottonwood, flowering pear and other plants. If you want to hang live mistletoe in your home and are willing to climb a mature oak tree to get some, while you’re at it, be sure to cut off parts of the mistletoe plant to help control its spread.

Contact the Cherokee County OSU Extension Office at 918-456-6163 if you have any questions. Happy mistletoe hunting and happy holidays!

Garrett Ford is an agricultural educator for the OSU Cooperative Extension Service in Cherokee County.

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