Misunderstood Mistletoe

Written by Master Naturalist Reenie Rice and Terry Holman, District Director for the Federated Garden Club of Maryland, Eastern Shore.

Who doesn’t enjoy a kiss under the Mistletoe? Such a wonderful, Christmassy tradition. Have you ever wondered why the tradition started?

It’s thought to have begun with ancient Druids, who likely believed the plant could ward off evil spirits and bring good luck to the household where it was hung. The Victorians seemed to like that idea and developed the custom of plucking a berry off after each kiss; the Mistletoe was removed when the last little berry did its job.

This tree located in Trappe is proudly displaying its Mistletoe parasite in all its glory. Photograph courtesy of Reenie Rice.

If Mistletoe could feel proud, likely it would be proud of those stealing kisses beneath its beauty. Let’s face it, Mistletoe is a thief. Like many other plants – an estimated 20% of them – it’s a parasite, meaning it takes sustenance from a different host species. Common hosts for Mistletoe are Oak, Ash, and Sycamores here in North America.

Unlike many, if not most parasites, Mistletoe is rather considerate of its host. In an almost surreal process, Mistletoe is aware of other Mistletoe on the same tree, either through “sniffing” to determine the chemical presence of nearby Mistletoe or via signal chemicals emitted into the tree’s xylem (the water “pipes” of the tree). Sensing nearby Mistletoe, each Mistletoe adjusts its demands upon the host. This clever – actually, sneaky – process allows the host to live much longer, which makes Mistletoe happy. Botanists call Mistletoe a “hemiparasite” because of its ability to both produce, and steal, food.

Winter months force Mistletoe to create its own food through photosynthesis, which is why the plant remains green throughout the winter months – which may be the reason for its ongoing reputation of magical powers. Another might be its ability to “hide” from the host plant; it’s almost as though they wear a cloak of invisibility. Mistletoe is green all year, as it photosynthesizes just enough all year to retain color.

Mistletoe may be green all year, but winter is when it shines like a beacon. From October to January its berries attract birds and other berry loving creatures; from February through March, it blooms prodigiously, emitting an orange-like odor that attracts local pollinators like bees (who come out on warm days seeking food), some flies, ants and possibly beetles. February through March is a tough time for pollinators, who are often fooled by warm days and come out of hibernation. Spending energy flying about, Mistletoe’s attractive blooms help them survive their early emergence.

Not content with merely enjoying life on a host, Mistletoe seeks to spread the joy with seeds. Because the seeds need a host, rather than soil, to grow, Mistletoe creates yummy (to birds, not humans) berries that are covered in Viscin, a very sticky substance that goes undigested through the bird, like the seeds themselves, so that the seeds emitted after bird digestion (you know how) will stick to the tree branches the bird perches upon. Thus, the seed firmly attached to a host can grow its “haustorium,” a structure somewhat similar to a root, that emits enzymes to break through bark and continue on to the good stuff in the phloem and xylem of the host. Worthy of note for Mistletoe fans, is that the name, Mistletoe, rather literally means “dung on a tree.”

Mistletoe doesn’t only feed birds; it also provides homes for some of them, as well as butterflies Great Purple Hairstreak, Thicket Hairstreak and Johnson’s Hairstreak, where it serves as a “larval host plant.” In other words, it feeds babies so that the butterflies don’t die out. Evolution being crafty, the caterpillars (baby butterflies) match the green so closely they’re almost invisible to predators. Beyond all that, Mistletoe’s flowers provide nectar to a wide array of pollinators active in very early spring, like bees, ants, and beetles, who might otherwise be stressed by the lack of nectar in these weeks.

In America, Mistletoe “Phoradedron serotinum” is native, while Europe sees “Viscum album.” The most visible difference is the color of the berries; our native Mistletoe has white berries, its European counterpart has red. Our Mistletoe joins roughly 1,300 species of the plant worldwide.

So, steal a kiss under the Mistletoe!

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