Plant of the Week
Latin: Phoradendron serotinum
Christmas, that holiest of Christian holidays, is bedecked with layer after layer
of religious tradition and legend. No other holiday has such a rich association with
plants as the yuletide season. One of these plants, the mistletoe, is an odd choice
for use during the holidays, because it doesn’t grow anywhere near the Holy Land and
it’s a parasite.
The common eastern American mistletoe is one of 900 species of parasitic, mostly evergreen shrubs that occur throughout the world. Our native mistletoe grows throughout the state but is more common in low lying ground that is prone to have high humidity.
It will invade any number of deciduous tree species but is most common on elms. Oaks, especially the upland species, are seldom mistletoe victims.
Mistletoe grows in balls the size of a bushel basket and can reach up to 90 pounds in weight. It has male and female plants with only the female plants producing the familiar pea sized white berries. Flowers appear in late summer with the berries present over winter. The berries are considered poisonous but a large quantity would have to be consumed to cause any significant ill effect. Certainly they should be kept out of children’s reach.
The pulp of the berry is a sticky mass that adheres to the feet and feathers of birds as they feed. Once the seed is deposited on a branch it will germinate in spring if moisture conditions are right.
The root tip, instead of growing into the ground, forms an attachment point called a haustorium which functions as an umbilical cord with the host tree. The tree provides the parasite with the water and mineral nutrients it needs, but the mistletoe does its own photosynthesis.
The use of mistletoe as a part of the holiday season is one of those pesky pagan rituals that was retreaded to fit the conventions of the Christian era. Before Christians, the Druids of Britain used boughs of the mistletoe for a midwinter ceremony performed five days after the first full moon after the winter solstice. Boughs were cut by the priest and distributed to the citizens to be hung over the entryway of their homes to ward off bad luck.
After the Christian religion spread throughout the British Isles the use of mistletoe was frowned upon, but religious leaders had no objection to substituting holly boughs for the purpose.
During the Victorian era, the British revived the tradition of using mistletoe as a part of Christmas legend, but spiced it up with a little Viking mythology. This is where the kissing part comes in.
It seems that according to Viking myth, Balder, the god of the summer sun, was killed by an arrow made from a mistletoe branch. His adoring mother, beseeching all the elements of nature to bring back her son-god, had her wish granted (after three days coincidentally) and forgave the mistletoe for its part in the treachery. So delighted, she decreed that all who passed beneath a tree bearing mistletoe should receive a kiss and no harm befall them.
My own experience with mistletoe began in grade school where I learned it was the state flower of Oklahoma. Mistletoe was selected as the state flower while Oklahoma was still Indian Territory.
The Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 sent out a call for all states to send in a state flower. Oklahoma had tentatively selected the passion flower, but found that Arkansas was sending it in as their state flower (ten years later Arkansas selected the apple blossom as it’s state flower), so instead it selected mistletoe.
Mistletoe, used to decorate graves in winter and runner-up, passion flower, both reflect the Bible Belt thinking of citizens making the selection. The officials at the World’s Fair were so surprised that mistletoe grew in Oklahoma -- I guess they didn’t think there were any trees in the state -- they ordered a boxcar of boughs and Oklahoma became an exporter of mistletoe to the rest of the country.
Does mistletoe hurt your tree? Probably, but in human terms, its more like athlete’s foot than cancer. In really extreme cases it can kill or significantly disfigure a tree, but usually it is just considered unsightly.
Control can be achieved only by pruning out the offending branches. Cutting off the mistletoe branches is like pruning a hedge and does nothing to eliminate the parasite. In recent years, a midwinter spray of Florel -- a plant growth regulator which releases ethylene -- has been used as an effective spray treatment to rid plants of infestations.
By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.