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Mistletoe facts and myths

Mistletoe: It's on Santa's naughty and nice lists.

A bit of a troublemaker in the horticultural world, mistletoe is classified as a hemi-parasitic plant. That big term simply means that it can make its own food through photosynthesis or "steal" it by penetrating the trunk and branches of any one of nearly 200 species of unsuspecting host plants with its roots.

Eventually, its roots penetrate the vascular tissues that transport the host's food and water, stealing them for itself. As a result, the host's growth eventually becomes stunted, and if the infestation of mistletoe is extreme, the host can succumb to a slow death over years.

Eastern mistletoe, its proper common name, is an evergreen plant with tiny, smooth, green leaves and white berries that can be found growing naturally down the eastern corridor of our coastal states from southern New Jersey to Florida. Phoradendron flavescens is the mistletoe we are familiar with that is sold at Christmas. It lives high in the canopy of the host plant, never touching the soil throughout its life.

This particular species of mistletoe is propagated in some clever ways. Its berries can be eaten by birds that in turn land on the branches of trees, deposit their feces and leave. The excrement sticks, and the seeds inside germinate on site.

Or as the birds dine and chomp down, the seed squeezes out the skin, lands on the branch and adheres because of a sticky gel-like substance that is inside the berry itself. Once deposited, the seeds have all necessary nutrients to begin life without soil, high on a branch. As a seedling, the mistletoe uses photosynthesis, but once mature, its parasitic tendency of feeding begins.

From the ground, mistletoe resembles a large, somewhat messy-looking cluster of intertwined stems and leaves balled up on a branch.

For some, this bunching habit provides prime real estate for nesting. When it comes to harvesting, the height poses a challenge, so mistletoe hunters are called to duty; with shotgun in hand, harvesting begins. The branch cracks and the mistletoe falls to the ground.

Its nice side lends itself more to myths and legends. Many an unmarried woman hurries to be found beneath hanging mistletoe so she can be kissed and ultimately married within the year.

No kisses, no husband for the next twelve months. And gentlemen, here's the proper technique for smooching your honey beneath this evergreen: One kiss, one berry plucked, another kiss, another berry. Once the mistletoe is bare, no more puckering.

The best, however, may be the origin of its name. Many, many centuries ago, mistletoe was believed to sprout from birds. It lives high in a tree, so that made perfect sense at the time. As a result, it was named "mistel," which means dung, and "tan," which means branch. From these, the name mistletoe was born. Its meaning: "dung on a twig." Ho, ho, ho!