By Martin (Mort) Schmidt for Simply Living
Occasionally the Tree of the Month article will feature topics related to, but not strictly about trees. Mistletoe would be an appropriate subject for the December issue, but I wanted to release this article before I lost touch with Daniel and Gigi, who obliged me by posing for one of the pictures below. Besides, mistletoe is still easy to spot before the trees leaf out in the coming months.
Mistletoe is not one species or even one genus. There are more than 1000 species of mistletoe, most of them in the order Santalales. (The order is below class and above family in the standard classification scheme: Kingdom > Phylum > Class > Order > Family > Genus > Species. For comparison, humans belong to the order primates, which are the mammals with prehensile hands and feet). Mistletoes are distinguished by being parasitic, woody, and aerial, i.e., they grow above ground. The species most widely associated with folklore are the European mistletoe, Viscum album, and the American mistletoe, Phoradendron leucarpum.
Most mistletoes grow on trees and shrubs, but some glom onto cacti, ferns, and even other mistletoes. Mistletoes are hemiparasitic — they live on other plants and derive water and nutrients from them, but they photosynthesize during at least part of their life cycle. The American and European mistletoes are green in winter when most other foliage is absent, which makes them conspicuous in winter, and may one reason the Druids came to associate mistletoe with magical powers.
Many mistletoes are dispersed through bird droppings, after birds consume the white berries. Some mistletoes are dispersed by exploding fruits, which can throw seeds more than 50 feet — even farther than the 30 feet traveled by witch-hazel seeds! The sticky seeds adhere to trees for as much as a year before penetrating the bark. Mistletoes can live on many species of trees, but the American mistletoe commonly grows on oak trees. I have not seen them in central Ohio, but they are widespread near and south of the Ohio River.
One or two mistletoe plants are not particularly harmful to trees, but a large infestation can kill them by robbing them of essential nutrients. According the the US Geological Survey’s page on mistletoe, “the American mistletoe’s scientific name, Phoradendron, means ‘thief of the tree’ in Greek”.
But while mistletoes do not benefit their hosts, they benefit many species of animals, including the southwestern bird phainopepla, which subsists almost entirely on mistletoe berries in winter. Several species of butterfly would not exist without mistletoe, and some bees consume mistletoe nectar and pollen. Some mammals, including deer and domestic cattle live on mistletoe foliage in winter when other greens are absent. Mistletoe berries are poisonous to humans, but the American mistletoe is less toxic than some. Some varieties of mistletoe are regarded as having medicinal value, and are reportedly used in Nepal to treat bone injuries.
According to the University of Wisconsin horticultural extension
https://hort.extension.wisc.edu/articles/mistletoe/ in the Middle Ages, mistletoe was believed to have “life-giving powers and bestowed fertility, could protect against poisons, was an aphrodisiac, and could ward off evil spirits. In Europe it was commonly hung in doorways throughout the house and stable to prevent the entrance of witches. The origins of today’s traditions involving mistletoe may date back to the Greek festival of Saturnalia where it was believed to confer fertility and later with primitive marriage rites…” Wikipedia states that “Pagan cultures regarded the white berries as symbols of male fertility, with the seeds resembling semen. The Celts, particularly, saw mistletoe as the semen of Taranis, while the Ancient Greeks referred to mistletoe as “oak sperm”.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mistletoe This seems likely to explain the association between mistletoe and romance.
Recently, while photographing mistletoe at an arboretum in Dallas, I had a conversation with a visitor named Daniel, and joked that he shouldn’t stand too close to me. He proposed instead to pose beneath the mistletoe with his wife, Gigi. An excellent suggestion! Thanks, Daniel and Gigi, and may the mistletoe confer health and prosperity upon you for the coming year!