Gardening - The Mystique of Mistletoe (and the Reality)

The Mystique of Mistletoe (and the Reality)

By Shirley Davey

It is almost as much a holiday staple as a wreath hung on your front door and it seems to miraculously pop out in bloom just as the mighty oaks are shedding their leaves. I am talking about mistletoe. What is the power of mistletoe and why do we kiss underneath it? Mistletoe is associated with magic and mystery, but it has some not so pleasant effects on our beautiful trees.

Since ancient times, mistletoe has been considered one of the most magical, mysterious and sacred plants of European folklore. Ancient Druids considered mistletoe sacred and believed it had miraculous powers to cure illness, ensure fertility and ward off witchcraft.

In Scandinavia, mistletoe was considered a plant of peace. Battling spouses would kiss and make-up under the mistletoe. Enemies of war, who by chance met under mistletoe in a forest, had to lay down their arms and observe a truce until the following day.

The modern day custom of using mistletoe to decorate houses during the Christmas season is a survival of ancient beliefs and traditions. However, before you gather up a bunch to hang over your doorway, you should know that it is potentially dangerous to your trees!

The word “Mistletoe” comes from the Old English “Mistel” (dung) and “Tan” (twig).  It is named after bird droppings on a branch. Long ago, people believed that mistletoe actually grew from birds, thinking that rather than passing through birds as seeds, the mistletoe plant was the result of a bird landing on a tree branch.

Mistletoe.jpg
Photo Caption: Mistletoe in Tree at White Oak Park, Photo by Shirley Davey. 

Mistletoe (Phoradendron) is actually a parasitic plant that grows on trees. A parasitic plant is one that needs another plant to survive. As mistletoe grows on a tree it uses its roots to penetrate a tree’s bark, thereby absorbing the tree’s nutrients and water, which can be quite damaging. Mistletoe negatively affects both the tree’s health and structure. On a healthy, vigorous tree, a few infections will cause no significant harm. However, the portion of a branch beyond the infection may be stunted or die. Numerous infections can cause a great deal of stress, which can lead to premature death of a tree.

In addition to the havoc, mistletoe wreaks on trees, it can make humans and pets dangerously sick. The green plant with the little white berries is very tempting to pets and small children. In addition to possibly suffering from ‘severe digestive problems,’ some mistletoe eaters can suffer seizures, and if allergic to the plant, it can be fatal. If mistletoe is a ‘must-have’ on your Christmas decorating list, consider purchasing an artificial replica to keep family and friends safe.

Do your tree a favor and clean off the mistletoe before it is too late! You will need to cut the limb off at least eighteen inches below the mistletoe infection to remove it completely. This should remove the entire root inside the tree so the mistletoe will not regrow. This control method can be difficult since you must be careful not to leave stubs and must follow traditional tree pruning techniques.

Shirley Davey, is a Paulding County Master Gardener Extension Volunteer and Georgia Certified Plant Professional. Extension Volunteers are trained experts who answer questions about home horticulture, sustainable landscaping, and environmentally friendly gardening practices using unbiased, research-based information. For more information on gardening in Paulding, contact the Paulding County Cooperative Extension Office at 770-443-7616 or visit online at www.ugaextension.org/paulding.