Parasitic mistletoe depends on its host

Mistletoe is the common name for any of the several hundred species of parasitic or semi-parasitic plants belonging to the Loranthaceae and Viscaceae families. The term “semi-parasitic” is sometimes used to describe mistletoe, because the plant contains chlorophyll to manufacture its own food, but absorbs water and nutrients from the sap of its host through specialized roots called “haustoria.”

Most mistletoes parasitize a variety of hosts. Some even parasitize other mistletoes, which in turn are parasitic on other hosts.

As a holiday decoration, mistletoe is one of the oldest in common use. Although it is seldom associated with anything other than Christmas, mistletoe was widely used centuries before Christ as a religious symbol in pagan rites.

The ancient Druids of Britain regarded mistletoe as sacred and believed it had both magical powers and medicinal properties. They referred to it as a “heal-all” and thought it could cure diseases, give fertility to humans and animals, counteract poisons, protect one from witchcraft, and bring good luck. Mistletoe, in fact, was so sacred to the Druids that if two enemies met beneath a tree on which mistletoe was growing, they would lay down their weapons, exchange greetings, and observe a truce that lasted until the following day.

The present-day custom of hanging mistletoe over a doorway or in a room probably came from the Druid tradition of laying down arms and exchanging greetings whenever enemies met beneath mistletoe in the forest. The custom of kissing while under the mistletoe is thought to be of English origin, but it, too, may relate to Druid beliefs.

Most mistletoe used today is commercially harvested in New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. In most of the south-central United States, including Virginia, the common mistletoe is Phoradendron flavescens (from the Greek “phor,” a thief, and “dendron,” tree). It grows on several species of deciduous trees.

The male and female flowers of mistletoe are borne on compact spikes on separate plants in late fall and soon give rise to one-seeded, white berries. When ripe, they are filled with a sticky, semitransparent pulp, poisonous to humans, but safe to many fruit-eating birds.

Mistletoe is a slow-growing, but persistent plant. Its natural death is usually determined by the death of its host. About the only effective way to control the plant is by completely removing the parasite from its host.

To find out more information on mistletoe or any other winter garden topic, feel free to call Nancy Olsen at the Bladen County Cooperative Extension, 910-862-4591, or come by the office at 450 Smith Circle Dr., Elizabethtown.