AUBURN, Alabama–Time to meet under the mistletoe as the holiday season approaches.
Tony Glover, Cullman County Coordinator for Alabama Extension, said part of the reason mistletoe is associated with Christmas is because of its presence across the globe.
“Mistletoe is an interesting group of plants,” Glover said. “These species are found worldwide. This lends the plant to Christmas use because it is found in most parts of the world.”
1. The word “mistletoe” translates literally to “dung-on-a-twig.”
Glover said mistletoe is part of an interesting group of plants. The more than 200 species can be found in almost every part of the world, but there are two predominant species in the southern United States.
In Anglo Saxon England, people thought the plant sprouted spontaneously from bird droppings. No one thought to check for seeds in the bird droppings, so mistletoe was named for its origin. In English, it translates to “dung-on-a-twig.” Meet me under the “dung-on-a-twig” may not be the most romantic way to ask a lady for a kiss.
2. Mistletoe hasn’t always had a romantic history.
The first record of mistletoe used for romantic purposes dates back to England in the early 1500s. In 1520, William Irving wrote that a young man should pick a berry every time he kisses a girl underneath the mistletoe. A version of this tradition still exists today, but without the use of berries.
3. Mistletoe berries are toxic to humans.
“Birds flock to the trees with mistletoe berries,” Glover said. “Consequently, the birds deposit more seed here and the infected area of the tree becomes shaded and blocks light from the lower canopies and eventually weakens the tree and makes it more susceptible to other issues.”
Eating mistletoe berries isn’t the best idea for humans, but birds don’t seem to have a reaction to the normally toxic berries. For this reason, mistletoe spreads by way of bird droppings.
4. Mistletoe is a semi-parasitic, shrub-like plant.
Mistletoe doesn’t encounter the competition for water and nutrients that most parasites experience.
Glover said mistletoe has chlorophyll and can manufacture its own food, but it is easier for the plant to steal from the host tree.
The branches of a tree provide more than enough of the water and nutrients it takes to survive a southern winter. Instead of roots, mistletoe plants have holdfasts that attach to the branch and take whatever nutrients the plant needs. Studies show mistletoe grows best when the seed is deposited on the same tree species as the parent plant. It isn’t likely for mistletoe to kill a tree, but it is proven to weaken it over time. Glover also says removal is the most effective form of mistletoe control.
5. Mistletoe grows throughout the southern United States.
From the Atlantic Coast to California, mistletoe has made a home in the southern states of the United States. It lives on every continent except Antarctica.
Tiny yellow flowers, characteristic of the evergreen mistletoe, bloom during fall until winter. After pollination, small glue-like pockets form, surrounding the indigestible seeds. These plants can be either male or female, but only the female plants have berries.