Is Mistletoe a Parasite?

We all know the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe, but if you see this plant in your trees and shrubs beware. Mistletoes are parasites. These organisms live on trees and shrubs at the expense of their hosts.

Especially this time of year, mistletoe is steeped in history and tradition. Druids believed it had the power to protect loved ones from evil. Ancient Greeks used it is a medicinal cure for a myriad of disorders. And, even today, this plant is one of great symbolism. Stand underneath it at Christmas time and you might just get a kiss! While this plant certainly has a notable history, that’s not the only interesting thing about it. There are thousands of mistletoe species, which grow on every continent except Antarctica. All of these are parasites.

mistletoe in tree
Mistletoe forms shrubby clumps that steal water and nutrients from the host tree.

Mistletoes form shrubby mounds on the branches or trunks of a living host tree. Many individual plants can be found growing on the same host. Though it can obtain some of its nutrition from photosynthesis, mistletoe gets the vast majority of nutrients and water it needs by “stealing” them from its host.

Most mistletoes feed from a variety of hosts. While a few of mistletoe plants in a large tree won’t cause major damage, a heavy infestation can impact a host tree’s ability to thrive. As the host fights with the mistletoe for valuable food and water, it may begin to lose leaves starting in the upper crown.

Since mistletoe can quickly sprout and regrow, it is important to completely remove it from the host tree. Pruning before fruit appears on mistletoe in the winter months will help manage the infestation.

While faux mistletoe is a favorite holiday decoration that looks nice in your home, take action if you see this parasitic plant in your trees!

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