23 December 2009
In The Garden With the Fluvanna Master Gardeners
By Irene C. Burke - Fluvanna Master Gardener
Fluvanna County Extension Office: 434.591.1950
For the romantic, standing beneath a ball of American mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum) is an invitation to a kiss, an old Scandinavian practice of warriors who met for a temporary truce beneath its leaves and berries. Celts, Christians, ancient Greeks and Romans each created rituals and stories about mistletoes mystical origins and sacred uses.
If you can think of something magical, mistletoe is said to have played a part: hunting success, a cloaking device (before Star Trek!), enhanced fertility, immortality, opening locks, beautiful dreams, refreshing sleep, banishing evil. Wear it or hang it. Never let it touch the ground after cutting or its magical powers will end.
What exactly is mistletoe: a tree, a bush, a vine? Is it harvested from the wild or is it grown on farms? Does it have any other use besides holiday decoration? Is it friend or foe?
Where does it grow?
The native American species P. leucarpum grows abundantly, south of the New York-Canadian border, to Florida and the Gulf Coast states, west to Kansas and Arizona. Other species grow along the west coast.
What does it look like?
Mistletoe looks like a bush hanging from a tree branch. It prefers ash, beech, black gum, maples, oak, sycamore and walnuts. Often from a 6- to 12-inch lump it extends its thick, leathery leaves and sturdy stems for up to 9 feet.
In winter when hardwood trees lose their leaves, mistletoe is easily seen, thickly clumped about a limb. It is a semi-parasitic, evergreen sub-shrub found on a trees mid- to upper-boughs, anchored by roots into a rounded mass beneath the trees bark.
Friend or Foe?
For those who consider mistletoe a pest, the local Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) agent has information about mechanical and chemical control as well as integrated pest management (IPM) for larger infestations.
As a semi-parasite, mistletoe robs trees of important nutrients and is particularly damaging during drought. Its a friend, however, of birds that welcome this addition to their winter buffet. They disperse the berries sticky seeds to tree limbs nurtured with a bit of natural fertilizer.
Since many consider it a pest, mistletoe is harvested from the wild, preferably your own property or where permission has been granted.
Use a pruning hook or a ladder and pruning shears, letting the branches fall. Be sure to get a helper to steady the ladder. Gently cushion your sprays in puffed-out bags or lightly mulched, wooden or pulp berry boxes. Mist with cold water until the clusters are hung indoors.
Mix female branches white berries blushed with pink with the male, which have none. Create sprays with all berries and some without. Friends with pets and young children prefer sprigs with no berries as they are poisonous and drop when branches dry.
In true Southern tradition you could use a shotgun to bring down the clumps but that will harm the tree. Seriously, be sure to follow federal, state and local laws regulating the harvest of alternative forest products, especially if you have permission to go on public lands.
Tip of the Week
In a July 2009 report in "HortTechnology", scientists at Ohio State University reported that you damage African violets (Saintpaulia ionantha) when you brush the leaves or flowers with your bare hand. If you must touch, wear latex or nitrile gloves, or poke and prod with a clean wooden chopstick or toothpick.