Mistletoe

December 21, 2014 lawanda Uncategorized

Here in Wisconsin, mistletoe comes to mind only at Christmas time, and then only to those hoping to kiss or be kissed beneath it.  Come January, nobody gives it another thought.  It’s not that way in some parts of the U.S., but we’ll get to that later.

The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe comes from pre-Christian times when the plant was thought to inspire passion and increase fertility.  Since those early days, mistletoe has been used as an herbal remedy to treat and cure all manner of maladies.  European scientists are currently studying its effectiveness in treating cancer and AIDS.  Experts are sharply divided though, as there are concerns about mistletoe interacting with other medications or foods, and possibly exacerbating un-diagnosed conditions.

Mistletoe is a semi-parasitic plant.  Instead of growing in soil, it lives in trees such as apples, elms, oaks, firs and pines, about 200 species of trees in all.  It attaches to the branches of the tree and penetrates the bark with a structure called a haustorium through which it steals water and nutrients meant for the higher reaches of the tree.

There are over a thousand species of mistletoe and some are much more parasitic than others.  Some steal all the water and nutrition they need from their host tree, while others do quite a bit of their own photosynthesizing.  The most parasitic species can eventually kill their host tree.

Mistletoe is a native plant of the east coast of the U.S. as far west as Ohio and also in the southwest.  Even though it is native, it can become quite invasive.  We think we’ve got it bad here with buckthorn sprouting up everywhere, but at least buckthorn is on the ground, not high in treetops.  Mistletoe seeds are like those of buckthorn in that the berries that contain them are attractive to birds and pass right through their digestive tracts, spreading everywhere the bird flies.  But mistletoe has another trick up its sleeve.  The waxy white berries are sticky so they affix to any branch on which they land.  They also stick to birds’ beaks, and when the birds wipe their beaks on branches to unstick them, the berry fixes to the branch.  Also, uneaten berries drop from higher tree branches onto lower ones, making for new infestations lower on the tree.

There is another side to mistletoe though.  It is recognized as a keystone species, one that plays a disproportionately large role in maintaining its ecological community.  The leaves, young shoots, berries and pollen support hundreds of species of birds, animals and insects.  The “witches brooms” formed by mistletoe high in trees becomes a protective home for birds like the spotted owl.  Studies have shown that where greater densities of mistletoe are present, there is a higher diversity of both plants and animals.  So while it may stunt or even kill its host plant, the net result is positive.  Oh, if only the same were true of buckthorn!

MiscellaneousPests/Weeds/Invasives


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