Landscape Spotlight: Mistletoe, ‘Phoradendron’

Posted December 21, 2017 in Blog, Plant and Tree

We are 100% certain that after reading the title of this month’s Landscape Spotlight, you automatically thought of the holidays, hanging mistletoe from the rafters and stealing a kiss or two.  We have been conditioned to think this way and reenact the tradition from old poems, books and Hallmark cards…but can you tell us anything else about mistletoe…just one other fact or tidbit?  For most, knowledge of mistletoe stops at the doorway, literally.  Chances are you have not seen mistletoe in the wild, or if you have, you might not have known what it was!

A little background: The ancient Druids believed that mistletoe had sacred powers because it grew so high to the heavens in the tree canopy and remained green in the coldest of winters.  They harvested the mistletoe and hung it to ward off evil and nurture fertility.  At some point in the early 1800’s rules were imposed to include kissing underneath the mistletoe, and for every kiss a berry was to be plucked from the sprigs.  Once the berries were gone, so were the kisses.  While this is a very romantic ideology, the mistletoe genus name Phoradendron tells a different story.  Stemming from Greek origin, “phor” means to carry off (as a thief) and “dendron” is a reference to trees, let us make mention of the menace that is mistletoe!

There are approximately 1,000 species of mistletoe throughout the world and several broadleaf varieties can be seen hanging in doorways in the U.S.  While mistletoe remains a symbol of peace, love and joy, its lesser appealing characteristics are hardly mentioned.  Mistletoe is actually a parasitic plant that can’t survive on its own!  Relying on its host for nutrients and water, mistletoe is quite the clever little freeloader. Seizing its own opportunistic agenda, the white mistletoe berries have evolved into a truly appealing food source to birds, bugs and squirrels.  Birds will eat the berries and go about their way.  Flying from branch to branch and tree to tree, the birds generously “deposit” the seeds, complete with a little fertilizer.  The seeds, which are also covered in a sticky residue will spread throughout unsuspecting foliage by means of beaks and feet.  Once the seeds settle in, they start to grow “roots” called haustoria.  These roots will attach to the branches and penetrate the outermost bark to get to the tree’s central vascular system.  This is where the mistletoe gets its nourishment and opportunity to grow into the massive balls within the tree’s canopy.  As you can see in this blog’s cover photo, those aren’t odd looking trees, they are everyday trees that have been attacked with massive growths of mistletoe!

With this type of relationship, you would think that the mistletoe would deplete its host of all nutrients, but that isn’t necessarily the case.  While some mistletoe might end up killing its host because it was too old or too weak to sustain this intrusion to begin with, we must keep in mind that if the host tree dies, the mistletoe will die as well.  The host tree will encounter some stress from its new-found scrounger, but healthy trees are less likely to suffer a huge negative impact.

This begs the question, if you have mistletoe in your treetop canopies, should you make the effort to eliminate it?  While mistletoe is a natural part of the ecosystem, there are a few circumstances where you might want to get rid of it.  If mistletoe has attached itself to a focal point or ornamental tree within your landscape, you may want to call an arborist.  At the same time, if you notice mistletoe on your property, there is a good chance that your neighbors will begin to see signs of it within their own yards.  Taking care of the origin of the problem may save you some frustrating conversations with the neighbors down the road.

Are there any benefits to mistletoe at all?  Sure, for every negative there should be some sort of positive.  A variety of birds nest directly within the mistletoe balls high in the trees.  The mistletoe provides ample protection for our flying friends like the black-capped chickadees, mourning doves, house wrens, as well as certain species of owls and hawks.  There are also a few varieties of bees and butterflies that rely on mistletoe as a food source for their hatching eggs.  While there may not be many direct benefits of mistletoe for humans, this plant means the world to the wildlife it supports!  Studies have shown that mistletoe is crucial to certain ecosystems around the globe.  (Please note that we should not nibble on the berries out of curiosity, as mistletoe berries are highly toxic to humans!  Consuming mistletoe berries will cause slow heartbeat, cramping and several other stomach issues.)

In retrospect, I suppose we could say that mistletoe marches to the beat of its own drummer.  Just as your overly enthusiastic aunt that wore too much blush for the family Christmas get-together would grab your face and plant a kiss on your cheek, we can see that in nature, mistletoe takes a page out of that same book.  This plant does what it wants, when it wants and doesn’t take no for an answer.  Now that we know the truth about this holiday favorite, do you think that it should remain on the nice or relocated to the naughty list?

  • MasterPLAN Outdoor Living is a design-build firm that seeks to inspire clients through the creation of personalized and timeless outdoor living spaces, perfect for enjoyment on all levels.  Serving the Poconos, Lehigh Valley through the Main Line of Philadelphia and western New Jersey, we would love to help you discover the true potential for your property.  When you are ready to chat about all of your outdoor living options, reach out to MasterPLAN!

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