Lynn Barber, Hillsborough County Extension

Mistletoe is a traditional holiday decoration. The American or oak mistletoe (Phorandendron serotinum) only grows in deciduous trees, which shed their leaves annually. In Florida, mistletoe is most commonly found in laurel oaks, but it can also be found in elms, hackberries, sycamores and wild cherry trees.

Mistletoe may be lovely to look at, but beware of it on several levels. It is a parasite that can harm or destroy the tree it infests. By removing mistletoe, you can help the tree, but removal isn’t necessarily a simple task. You can remove the branch that is infested by cutting it a minimum of 6-12 inches below the location where the mistletoe is attached to the branch. Sometimes, the cure is worse than the issue, however, and the cure could damage the structure of the tree. If you decide to remove the mistletoe, you will need a pruning pole along with head, eye and hand protection. A better option may be to hire a professional to do the job. Another option is to use a growth regulation chemical when the tree is dormant, generally from December to early February. If applied at times other than these months, the growth hormone will damage the tree. The chemical, Ethephon, must be applied by a licensed pest control operator.

It is important to keep mistletoe out of the reach of children and pets. The U.S. poison control center received 1,754 cases of accidental poisoning between 1985 and 1994 that involved pets, children and mistletoe. You may want to consider purchasing plastic mistletoe from craft stores or on-line versus using the plant itself. At Extension, we prefer using plastic mistletoe, if at all, because it does not have potential health hazards of the live plant, lasts longer and requires no refrigeration or water. If you decorate with live mistletoe, don’t hang it above heaters, fireplaces, stoves or things that produce heat. The heat will dry out the mistletoe and can create a fire hazard. Wear gloves when handling mistletoe. If you don’t, be sure you thoroughly wash your hands with hot, soapy water after touching this plant.

For more information, visit http://solutionsforyourlife.ufl.edu/hot_topics/lawn_and_garden/mistletoe.html and http://gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu/giam/potpourri/holiday/mistletoe.html. For assistance with horticultural questions, call 744-5519 or visit the UF/IFAS Extension Hillsborough County, 5339 CR 579 in Seffner.