Nine-Minute Naturalist: Merry Mistletoe
Filed under: Nine-Minute Naturalist
by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator
I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. Don’t let something as “minor” as a quarantine to keep you from learning. I hope you enjoy!
As the husband of a music teacher and choir director, the Christmas season tends to start earlier than most for me and my household. My fight to contain the Christmas season to December is a lost cause both in my house and as I wander the woods at Wintergreen. As soon as the leaves drop from our deciduous canopy, the evergreen mistletoe plant is revealed and the reminders of the Christmas season are obvious for all to see despite it being only November. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist will detail the beloved, traditional mistletoe plant.
Mistletoe is a parasitic plant species that covers three families and boasts over 1300 species worldwide. One thing all mistletoe plants have in common is that they are parasitic although most mistletoe species are actually a hemiparasite, meaning they are capable of some photosynthesis. They begin their lives as sticky seeds that attach to branches of trees or shrubs via flying through the air or hitching a ride from a bird friend. They attach to plant hosts and siphon off water and nutrients in the quest for life. It penetrates the bark via a structure that would act as a root called a haustorium.
The mistletoe does not just exploit the host tree but also birds. The birds act both as pollinators and distributors of seeds to new hosts. As pollinators, birds are attracted to the nectar laden blooms. Some species of mistletoe have petals that are fused together; when a bird opens the flower it is showered with explosively sprayed pollen. The berries are rich in minerals and glucose and attract loyal subjects.
Roughly 90 bird species are mistletoe specialists. Most fruits are berries containing a single seed surrounded by a layer of goo called viscin, used to secure it to the new host once secreted by birds. Mistletoe hosts in a wide variety of species such as oak, poplar and about 100 other woody plant species in eastern North America. While parasitic mistletoe rarely kills their host, they weaken the host and make them more vulnerable to other attacks from insects and disease. The biggest antagonists, besides those that hate Christmas, tend to be commercial tree farmers. The parasitic plants do affect growth rates especially in many important conifer species. They often cause “witches’ broom” growth tangles in the branches of evergreen trees.
Now that we know a bit of the biology of this unique plant it is time to delve into the mythology. Legend held that mistletoe had mystical powers over life, death and healing. Even Hippocrates mentioned treating epilepsy with mistletoe. In the Middle Ages, Druids hung mistletoe to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck. Mistletoe made its way into Norse mythology when Loki makes a spear out of mistletoe to kill the god Baldur. The act of kissing under the mistletoe seems to have originate in England, a traditional stronghold for the Norsemen. In the 1500’s, a painting shows King Henry VII at Westminster Hall with many kissing boughs hanging from the ceiling. Many 18 th century prints depict mistletoe hung in taverns, coffeehouses and kitchens throughout Europe. The custom crossed the Atlantic with the colonists and showed up in scientific and cultural sources. Washington Irving’s The Sketch Book describes the popular tradition and Virginia’s William Byrd, a founder of Richmond, wrote directions for collecting and drying mistletoe.
Mistletoe can be found at various parts of Wintergreen but most commonly in the Stoney Creek portion of the property. Look for ball shaped green masses up to 3 feet wide in the bare tree branches of oaks orany variety of our woody plants. Try making this Christmas season unique by hanging real mistletoe rom your doorways and mantles. Who knows? Maybe it will bring you luck or love.
December 30, 2021 at 8:10 pm
Great information Josh! Thanks for sharing. We have shot down some mistletoe from trees on the Eastern Shore in past years. I didn’t know there were so many different varieties!