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Mistletoe’s magic dwells between plant warfare and Christmas kindness

David Broyles Staff Writer

6 months 19 days 9 hours ago |1398 Views | | | Email | Print

DOBSON — It’s a plant often discussed exclusively at yule time which lives in our collective psyches as something representing the seasonal Christmas question of naughty or nice and giving many the chance to be “Kiss” Kringle.


It is mistletoe.


Surry Community College Horticulture Instructor Jeff Jones leaves the traditions and cultural inferences to others and sticks with the scientific aspects. Much of the physiology of the plant is far from romantic sounding. (The earliest documented case of kissing under the mistletoe dates from 16th century England, a custom that was apparently very popular at that time.)


“It can grow in the highest parts of trees,” said Jones. “Mistletoe is a parasite but it is also semi-evergreen so it can carry on its own photo synthesis. It has a specialized structure which digs into the tissues of what is most often an oak to get water and nutrients.”


It seems any plant which makes a successful living without ever sinking its roots into the ground and stays green in winter seems a likely target for folklore.


“It’s not the worst ‘taker’ of a parasite and it lives its whole life cycle up in the tree,” Jones said. “It’s spread by wind and birds mostly. The sticky seeds which fall on tree limbs can germinate there. There are several different species in North America, Europe and even Australia.”


According to Jones, mistletoe flowers in the summer and sets fruit in the fall. Carolina Country Magazine explored the attraction of the plant in a recent article citing some people who want to know how they can grow it while others want to get rid of it.


It is a given the plant’s dark-green, leathery leaves and white berries have become a beloved holiday decoration in spite of many laws prohibiting using firearms to shoot it down from the tree that provides physical support for the mistletoe plant, a small shrub that can grow to three feet in diameter.


Commercial tree growers consider mistletoe a pest, saying heavy infestations can eventually weaken trees. Other naturalists argue mistletoe is a natural part of forest ecosystems, providing food and shelter for wildlife and attracting birds which scatter seeds. Entomologists also report caterpillars of the great purple hairstreak butterfly feed exclusively on leaves of American mistletoe, commonly called oak mistletoe or Christmas mistletoe.


Extension service information cites the only safe and reliable way to eradicate mistletoe is to prune the offending branches because removing the plants is ineffective. They sprout back. Others argue pruning too many limbs from heavily infested trees will do more harm than the mistletoe.


Birds are the primary disperses of mistletoe seeds. The berries consist of sticky pulp that contains the seed. One way that birds spread mistletoe seeds is by wiping their bills against a branch after they eat the berries, to clean off the pulp. The seeds then stick to tree limbs and sprout there.


A Carolina Magazine article suggests to propagate mistletoe, crush a ripe berry and rub it onto a twig, preferably from the previous season’s growth. Gardeners are cautioned to use native mistletoe, (Phoradendron leucarpum.) Choose a deciduous tree which is susceptible to mistletoe such as oaks or maples. If the seed germinates, the first leaf shoots may appear during the first year. It is estimated female plants will produce berries in about five years.


Remember how toxic a type of mistletoe is depends on the type of mistletoe and what part is eaten. There are several species of mistletoe. The Phoradendron species contain a toxin called phoratoxin, which can cause blurred vision, nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhea, blood pressure changes, and even death.


Printed reports suggest the Viscum species of mistletoe contain a slightly different cocktail of chemicals, including the poisonous alkaloid tyramine, which produce essentially the same symptoms. Although mistletoe has therapeutic uses, eating any part of the plant (particularly the leaves or berries) or drinking a tea from the plant can result in sickness and death. The bottom line is to be cautious with mistletoe and ingestion of it warrants a call to Poison Control hot line and immediate medical attention.


North Carolina State Biologist and writer Rob Dunn’s article in Smithsonian Magazine discusses some of the age old legend attached to the plant. Dunn reports that Baldur, grandson of the Norse god Thor, woke up one morning sure each and every plant and animal on earth wanted to kill him.


As the story goes, his mother and wife could not calm Baldur’s fears, so they decided to ask every living thing to leave in peace. Each plant and creature asked agreed. Later, Baldur paused to celebrate his release from torment only to be stabbed in the chest. Killed by an arrow made from a mistletoe plant, the one species on earth his wife and mother had failed to notice.


Dunn relates another story where druids viewed mistletoe as magical and hung it above their doors for luck. Other traditions link the plant to fertility, and suggest it is an aphrodisiac. He suggests this tradition supported the modern story of mistletoe being one of kisses. As Washington Irving wrote in the 1800s, “young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under [mistletoe], plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked the privilege ceases.”


He expands on translations of early terms for the plant which proved surprisingly accurate characterizing it as “dung twig” and writes “The kiss of the mistletoe is the kiss of seeds through a bird, of those same seeds onto bare branches, and of roots slipping into tree branches and shoots. It is also the kiss of the leaves of the mistletoe, leaves that rise above all others through subterfuge.”


Dunn insists mistletoe is a measure of how many of the fruits literal or figurative, depend on other species. He reminds readers we depend on mistletoe for tradition and it depends on its tree and its bird, just as we depend on thousands of species ourselves, our crops, our Christmas trees and many more.


Reach David Broyles at dbroyles@civitasmedia.com or 336-719-1952.

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