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MISTLETOE IS A PARASITIC PLANT IN HARDWOOD TREES

Kissing under the mistletoe was first noted in the early 1500s, no doubt by a watchful parent keeping a sharp eye on their daughter. Not surprisingly, the custom caught on and has remained popular for centuries.

 

By Les Harrison
Wakulla County Extension Director

 

Rudolph is polishing his nose and checking the intensity just in in case fog rolls in. Wakulla County’s children are ticking off the minutes and are, basic inclinations notwithstanding, on their very best behavior.
Last minute Christmas bargains are being hurled at prospective buyers through every conceivable mass media channel. The indecisive are now at the point where choices must be made or disappointment will result.
The retail establishments are packed and the last minute delivery service’s capacity are straining at the demands. Behavior in parking lots has transitioned into a blend of bumper cars and chicken with customary civility in short supply.
Fortunately, one tradition which has not changed for centuries is a kiss under the mistletoe. This parasitic plant commonly found growing in Wakulla County hardwood trees has a long and storied history in religion, folklore, and pagan rites across several continents.
Mistletoe plants can grow in a variety of local hardwood trees, most typically in pecans and oaks. Across its range mistletoe can be hosted by more than 200 different shrubs and trees.
This plant’s sprouts are equipped to utilize available nutrients and water until they are firmly attached into a host’s system which will do most of the work for them.  Classified as hemi-parasites, mistletoe does engage in some photosynthesis while deriving most of its sustenance from the host plant.
Mistletoe is easy to spot in the tops of trees which are shedding their leaves in autumn. The growth position in the tree provides mistletoe with several advantages.
Birds are primarily responsible for spreading mistletoe seed, and the plants are an attractive source of food during the winter’s meager months. The plant’s location in the top of the tree is easily visible to birds and a safe location for the birds to dine.
Stalks of mistletoe are easily broken with minimum effort. The growth clusters in the top of the trees minimizes the possibility of the rather brittle, delicate plants being damaged by larger animals looking for a meal.
As a parasite, heavy infestations of mistletoe are an indication of a tree in decline. The tree’s defenses are helpless against mistletoe’s roots which penetrate the bark and drain needed nutrients.
Because of its ability to produce fruit and seed in the winter months and other unique qualities, a number of early cultures credited mistletoe with mystical powers.
The early residents of the Scandinavia had an intricate sacred soap opera revolving around the misuse of mistletoe involving jealousy, envy, and murder. Even a divine sword was named after the parasitic plant.
The citizens of the Roman Empire were more inclined to consider mistletoe for its pharmaceutical properties. The plant could be a considered a treatment for a variety of conditions, depending on the physician who was making the diagnosis.
Kissing under the mistletoe was first noted in the early 1500’s, no doubt by a watchful parent keeping a sharp eye on their daughter. Not surprisingly, the custom caught on and has remained popular for centuries.
Possibly, more trucks and cars should have a sprig installed over the vehicle before seeking a parking lot. It might reduce the stress of competing for the last remaining spot close to the business’s front door.

Les Harrison is the Wakulla County Extension Director. He can be reached by email at harrisog@ufl.edu or at (850) 926-3931.