Mistletoe


Christmas is getting closer and bunches of mistletoe again adorn doorways. The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe is one that originated with the Druids. A white berry-like fruit is removed after each kiss. When all are gone kissing is no longer allowed.

One legend states that a couple who kisses underneath mistletoe will have good luck, but a couple that doesn’t will have bad luck. Kissing under the mistletoe supposedly ensures a long marriage and fulfilling life. Legend also states that an unmarried woman not kissed under the mistletoe will remain single for another year.

Kissing under the mistletoe is fine, but eating any part of the plant, especially the fruit is not. In general, avoid any plant with white berries. Poison ivy, oak, and sumac are prime examples.

Mistletoe fruits technically are not berries. They are drupes, like cherries or peaches, since they contain only one seed. That doesn’t change their toxicity. They contain a poison called phoratoxin, which can cause blurred vision, nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhea, hypotension, and even death.

Some people hear that mistletoe lowers blood pressure and they think that they can self-medicate themselves with just a few fruits. It’s not that simple. Don’t let the lower blood pressure symptom convince you to try some.

Studies vary and some people show no toxicity symptoms other than an upset stomach, but it’s crazy to eat things well documented to be toxic in moderate or lower levels. Keep it away from children, since all plant parts are toxic.

Several commercial extracts contain mistletoe. I strongly suggest consulting your doctor before using them. They could interfere with medication.

Cancer and arthritis research on mistletoe is ongoing. Much of this has been in Europe and with the European mistletoe. American types have not been studied as extensively.

Mistletoe is a unique parasitic plant. It’s what we call a hemi parasite, because it produces much of its own food through photosynthesis. It also taps the tree for all its mineral nutrition, and large infestations can severely weaken a tree.

Successful parasites do not kill their hosts, and mistletoe alone rarely kills trees. It does make them more susceptible to other problems. Eventually the tree will probably die prematurely.

Observant folks might notice that not all mistletoe plants possess fruits. Entire plants are either male or female. They form on trees when a single seed is deposited on a branch. Usually this is accomplished through bird droppings.

The name mistletoe comes from two Anglo-Saxon words which translate to ‘dung twig.’ In earlier days people thought it was the birds themselves and not the seeds they dropped that caused mistletoe.

These sticky seeds send out roots that penetrate bark and then wood of the tree. Over time they weaken the branch and often limbs break.

Mistletoe can be pretty, especially in winter, but I suggest removing plants from your trees if possible. The best time to notice you have a problem is when the leaves fall, so pull it off your trees and stick it above your door.

Honeylocust tree loaded with mistletoe

Honeylocust tree loaded with mistletoe

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAcloseup of mistletoe and white fruit

 

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I now teach agriculture to high school students at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City, NC. My wife teaches with me and we make a great team. I also write a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper (dailyadvance.com) and frequently publish articles in several other newspapers in northeastern North Carolina. I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that I plan to publish eventually. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone, a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. Never Alone is now available in paperback, Kindle and Nook. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death. In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books.
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16 Responses to Mistletoe

  1. Deb Platt says:

    I photographed what I thought was a parasitic plant growing in a tree, and I thought that maybe it was mistletoe. But after looking at your photos, I’m growing more doubtful about that. If not too inconvenient, would you perhaps take a look at it?

    Tentatively identifying as Witches Broom (Hexenbesen)

  2. tedmanzer says:

    That might also be a witches broom, which is a fungus that has symptoms commonly caused by viruses. They must have 2 separate hosts to complete their life-cycle. without seeing it firsthand I’m not totally sure. The more I look at it the more it looks like a witches broom, because it does appear to have broad leaves trying to develop, like the blueberry witches broom does.

    • Deb Platt says:

      Thank you for taking the time to help me identify this unusual growth. I had no idea that witches broom could be leafy. I have seen witches broom on numerous occasions on hackberry trees, and it’s all twigs with no leaves. After doing more reading on witches broom, I came across one article that said it can sometimes be caused by a genetic mutation, too. Maybe that happened in the tree that I photographed.

      To my surprise, it turns out that there is a Flickr group which collects photos of such things, called “About Witches Broom (Hexenbesen) and Other Botanical Curiosities”. I’ve submitted my photo to them as an example of witches broom, and I’ll see if anyone complains that it isn’t. LOL

  3. I think it’s so pretty and why does it grow in your trees ?

  4. I never use these things during christmas time. i didn know that they grow on trees

  5. I knew they grew on trees, but they are very pretty and i try to bring them around every year. I just never knew mistletoe could be that poisonous and could harm trees.

  6. kimberlypaigeweaver says:

    I love the look of these! I didnt know that they were poisonous. I also havent heard of the legends dealing with these.

  7. awhitenhs12 says:

    I never knew that it was that posiounous, ive heard you say that is all around the campus at school.

  8. I knew that they were poisonous but i didn’t know that they grew on trees

  9. I knew about hem growing on trees around christmas, but i never knew they were parasites or were poisonous

  10. susiehedley says:

    I loved reading about the customs and traditions of mistletoe, and it’s good to know that the drupes are white and not the widely-believed red.

  11. jordan2197 says:

    I would have never thought that they are poisonous. They grow on trees around Christmas time. Their drupes are white but not widely believed to be red.

  12. Morgan Murray says:

    The name mistletoe comes from two Anglo Saxon words which translate to “dung twig.” I never knew that mistletoe was a drupe and was not actually a berry. I also found out that they are poisonous. It can cause symptoms such as hypotension, blurred vision, nausea, and even death. This plant produces much of its food through photosynthesis. I love this plant because it makes pretty decorations in the winter time.

  13. I never knew that mistletoe was poisonous but I love to look at it during Christmas time. My family always hangs some up every year during the holiday!

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