Bee Investigator: Modesto crews struggle to keep up with ‘revolving door’ mistletoe

02/02/2014 7:12 PM

02/02/2014 8:37 PM

I get frequent inquiries about city trees in Modesto – the ones planted in residential neighborhoods. There are all kinds of questions and myths that abound about the trees. If it’s on my property, can I take it out? Can I prune it if it’s growing over my roof? What if I want to add solar panels but the shade trees are in the way?

Here’s a good one: Vivian Leininger lives in northeast Modesto and said that years ago, the city replaced a flowering pear tree in her front yard with an ash tree.

“It has provided us with welcome shade in the summer and is a lovely tree,” she said. “However, it is now full of mistletoe and I fear it will die. I understand that the city forbids homeowners to do anything with the city trees. I have sent emails to the City Council inquiring about the maintenance of our trees and have never received a response.”

She said it’s been several years since the trees on her court have been trimmed.

“Along East Orangeburg Avenue, you can see lovely trees, all infected with mistletoe. My question is, does the city allow homeowners to try to correct the problem – those who are willing to pay to have the mistletoe removed?”

The short answer: Most likely.

Here are the complete details:

Steve Lumpkin, who is in charge of Modesto’s forestry department, passed me along to Mike Hoesch, the city’s arborist. Mike’s been with the city for 10 years and is a certified arborist and a member of the International Society of Arboriculture. That would be like hiring an architect who is a member of the American Institute of Architects or a doctor belonging to the American Medical Association. In other words, Hoesch is qualified to determine tree health and what needs to be done to fix a problem.

His team of 22 workers, including 12 tree trimmers and six specialized trucks, takes care of the city’s trees, including the 200,000 in the parks. They prune trees, cut damaged branches, remove diseased trees and grind the stumps, among other jobs.

“We prune anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 trees a year,” Hoesch said. “The demand for city services for the trees is very high.”

Mistletoe is an ongoing problem, he said. The parasite “generally takes three to four years to actually grow. On the third year, it will seed and then the birds will spread it from tree to tree.”

If it’s on a branch, the branch can be trimmed or the mistletoe can be shaved to eliminate the problem, he said. But if it gets onto a main limb and goes into the cambium layer (under the bark), the entire limb might have to be removed, which could be detrimental to the shape and health of the tree. And there’s no guarantee it won’t reappear.

“Mistletoe is a revolving door. It can come back every three years,” Hoesch said.

The city crews prune for mistletoe in the winter, he said, when the leaves are off the trees and the green stuff is easily visible. “Our crews have been targeting the trees with mistletoe since late October,” he said. “We are severely behind, due to staffing and limited resources.”

Like most businesses and government agencies, his department has seen personnel cuts, from more than 53 people in the late 1990s to 22 today. They maintain the city’s trees on a rotating schedule, which at present means trees are trimmed about every seven years.

The bad news for Vivian is that city crews were last on her street in 2010, so they won’t be back until about 2017. The good news, sort of, is that she can pay to have the mistletoe removed from her tree ... probably.

It’s true, Hoesch said, that people can be fined for lopping limbs off their trees or removing them without the city’s permission. In general, he added, it’s OK to prune low branches that are no bigger than broomsticks. But don’t touch the higher or larger branches. “Otherwise, we’d have people out there cutting the trees, cutting major scaffolding limbs off that are detrimental to the trees,” he explained.

And here’s what you do if you want to pay to have someone prune the mistletoe from your city tree:

Call (209) 342-2249 and choose the forestry department option. Ask for an approved list of vendors who are properly certified and insured to do the work. Fill out an application for a permit for the work. Someone from the city will come out to inspect the tree. If your permit is approved – it’s a free permit, by the way – you can hire someone from the list to cut out the mistletoe.

“If we’re going to be out there in the next year or two, we’ll tell the homeowner,” Hoesch said. “I hate to see people spend money if we’re going to be there.”

In most cases, he added, the permits will be approved. “For mistletoe, we’re generally not going to say no,” he said.

But they could deny the request, in which case you’ll just have to wait for the city crews to come along. Vivian said she feared the long wait “may be too late to save the trees in my neighborhood.” Hoesch said the time between prunings probably won’t kill the trees if mistletoe is the only problem.

“Mistletoe isn’t the No. 1 reason a tree will die, but it could be a contributing factor,” he said. “It will only kill them over a very long period of neglect. If we get leeches on us, we’ll eventually die, but how long will it take? Trees depend on so many factors: how much sun it gets and how much water it gets and how many nutrients are in the soil.”

Mistletoe, like most parasites, is a real problem and not a joke. But I can’t help but think that maybe Modesto can get rid of its negative place on lists for things such as a large number of car thefts, big meth lab problem, and worst foreclosure rates, instead turning this into something positive. Could we maybe plug into mistletoe’s romantic mantra and become the kissing-ist place in the country? Promote the fact that you can take your honey for a walk on many city blocks and find a place to smooch under the green stuff? Change our motto to “Water, wealth, mistletoe, health?”

OK, forget that. Instead, send me your questions and I’ll try to wipe that smirk off my face. But let’s first end this column ... I’ll seal it with a kiss.

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