Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Nature Guide: Mistletoe

Kissing under the mistletoe is an ancient holiday tradition that is observed in many countries. In its natural setting, however, mistletoe's characteristics are less romantic. Our Nature Guide Jon Latimer explains:

"Mistletoe is a partial parasite (known to botanists as a 'hemiparasite') that uses its roots to penetrate a branch or trunk of a tree and absorb nutrients from its host. But mistletoe is also capable of subsisting on its own by producing food through photosynthesis. There are more than 1,300 species of mistletoe, but the one most often used as a Christmas decoration is American mistletoe (Phoradendron spp.). It has greenish-yellow leathery leaves that grow up to two inches long and sticky white berries that appear in fall. American mistletoe grows on a wide variety of trees and ranges from Florida to New Jersey and as far west as Texas.

"American mistletoe berries are poisonous to people, but they provide essential food for an amazing number of birds, butterflies, insects and mammals. American robins, mourning doves, bluebirds and pigeons eat mistletoe and also use it for cover and nesting sites. So do squirrels and chipmunks. But mistletoe also gains from these relationships. Its sticky seeds are often carried on a bird's beak or feathers or on a mammal's fur to new host tress where they produce new plants.

"There is a rich heritage of folklore related to mistletoe. The ancient Greeks believed it had mystical powers. The Celts and Germans worshipped mistletoe, especially when it was found on an oak tree. Our custom of decorating houses with mistletoe at Christmas is a survival of a Druid tradition of decorating with mistletoe to celebrate the winter solstice. During the Middle Ages, branches of mistletoe were hung from ceilings to ward off evil spirits, or sprigs were placed above doorways to prevent witches from entering. Mistletoe was also believed to bestow fertility, and kissing under the mistletoe was associated with courtship and marriage. According to tradition, one berry should be removed from the sprig of mistletoe after each kiss. When all the berries are gone, the kissing must stop."

Photo by Steve Baskauf, US Forest Service