SEBRING - For the past 10 years and up to the past two weeks, they've been working hard to kiss it goodbye,
In the Sun 'n Lake community, a rash of rampant mistletoe growth has been parasitically making mulch of some species of trees along its Deer Run golf course.
And because of the general lack of knowledge or concern for mistletoe, often associated with Christmas frivolity and an excuse for a smooch, the plant doesn't get the attention other invasive and pest plants - kudzu for example - get when it comes to curbing its spread there and throughout Highlands County.
A plant species of the family santalaceae, indigenous to Great Britain, much of Eurasia, mistletoe has had free reign over attaching itself to a host of trees, mostly smooth-barked like ficus, live oaks and water oaks. They are distinguished by green leaves, stems and white berries - each with a sticky seed inside, poisonous to humans.
According to the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, 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, elms, hackberries, sycamores and wild cherry trees. A mistletoe plant usually lives for eight to 10 years and the longer the mistletoe is attached, the more the host tree weakens and declines in health.
The Sun 'N Lake Improvement District of Sebring - an approximately 12-square-mile family-oriented neighborhood of approximately 7,500 full-time residents homes has now been experimenting with different methods of keeping the plant from spreading. With the assistance of Avon Park's Crosson And Payne Tree Service LLC, Greg Griffin, Sun 'N Lake director of public works, has been using two methods of containing and trying to eliminate the nuisance plant. For mildly-infected trees, the mistletoe is being pruned and cut out; for heavily-infested trees, a growth inhibitor is being sprayed to allow the trees to reclaim some of the nutrients lost to the ever-hungry mistletoe.
The most effective way to control mistletoe and prevent its spread, said Griffin, is to prune out infected branches as soon as the parasite appears. He equated mistletoe to human cancer: it's life-threatening if left untreated but if detected early, the chances of recovery for a tree is good.
"If you see mistletoe, call an arborist, have it cut out. It's less expensive than removing an entire tree," he said. "You can have gorgeous trees and before you know it, they can be completely covered."
Griffin said for Sun 'N Lake or residents of any other part of the county, they should contact an arborist or tree service to find out the severity of the infestation and what to do about it. He said Sun 'N Lake began treating its infected trees about four weeks ago with one application, trial-run of growth-inhibiting herbicide. He estimates about 200 old-growth, smooth-barked trees around the Deer Run course are still infested; the community's other golf course, Turtle Run doesn't seem to have the problem. He said rough-bark trees such as scrub oaks and long-leaf pines, don't attract the mistletoe, speculating the acidity of those trees may be why.
The eventual goal is to stop the spread, grow and replace trees that have to removed.
"It's going to be a long-term management process. It's going to take 10 years to grow and replace trees. In the meantime, we're trying to knock the mistletoe back and keep existing trees viable," he said.
During an outing to look at infected trees Thursday, Travis Crosson, Cross and Payne Tree Service owner, said his company has been battling mistletoe in Sun 'N Lake for about 17 years. He said its mostly spread through the droppings of birds who eat the plant's berries. He said once the mistletoe's roots invade a tree branch, roots take over and it chokes the limb off from nutrients causing it to eventually die and fall off.
Crosson said if a homeowner spots mistletoe's dark clumps, they should be cut from at least two feet behind on large-diameter limbs or remove the limb entirely if it doesn't affect the look of the tree. He said remove the roots by pruning the infested branch at least six inches below the spot where the mistletoe is attached.
Another method is to use specialized growth regulating chemical and applying it to the mistletoe when the host tree is dormant, usually from December to early February, otherwise, it would damage the tree.
Crosson said older trees can live 10 to 15 years with mistletoe before dying.
"It's a non-stop battle. We have a lot of wooded areas in this county. The best thing to do is to monitor it in areas and get it contained as fast as possible," he said. "If I have a way for people to keep their trees for the rest of their years, that would be huge. It's emotional for them; it's not even about the money for me," he said.
As Crosson stated, the mistletoe problem is far from confined to just Sun 'N Lake.
David Austin, urban horticulture and master gardener coordinator for the Highlands County Extension office, said mistletoe can be found countywide, especially among laurel oaks and cherry laurel. He said there are no exact figures of the spread of the parasitical plant but using a tree service to cut out infected branches is the best first step to saving a tree.
"Once they're infected in the trunk of the tree, it pretty much goes," he said.
For information, contact Highlands County Extension, (863) 402-6540 or see www.highlands.ifas.ufl.edu.