Under the Mistletoe

    • Spring bulbs can still be planted now. They make lovely gifts for friends and relatives.
    • Be sure to water outdoor container plants. This dry, freezing weather can damage them.
    • Living Christmas trees make a fine tradition. Slow-growing Colorado spruce trees can be used for 3 to 5 years before they need to be planted. Water them every other day while indoors.
    • Persimmons look beautiful hanging on the bare branches of trees. Consider planting one in your orchard.
    • Fruit trees can be planted now from containers while the soil is easy to dig.

Under the Mistletoe

The tradition of hanging mistletoe in the house goes back to the times of the ancient Druids. It is supposed to possess mystical powers that bring good luck to the household and ward off evil spirits. It was also used as a sign of love and friendship in Norse mythology and that’s where the custom of kissing under mistletoe comes from.

The pretty mistletoe that brightens our Christmas season is not a garden plant but a parasite that grows on trees. It is generally found on deciduous trees, particularly oaks.

Mistletoe is a semi-parasitic plant that manufactures its own food through photosynthesis, but depends on its host plant for water and minerals. The mistletoe that infects oak trees is not terribly harmful to the trees. After all, a good parasite should never kill its host, because it would thereby kill itself.

The plant produces sticky white, pink or red berries that are sweet and attractive to birds. As they feed and digest the berries, the birds carry the mistletoe seeds from one tree to another. Sometimes the berries fall from higher to lower branches, making new plants where they land. The seeds germinate almost anywhere, but penetrate only young, thin bark.

Mistletoe cannot develop its own root system, so it produces haustoria instead. Haustoria are the modified roots of a parasitic plant that penetrate the tissues of the host and absorb nutrients and water. These find their way into the water system of the tree, and draw up water and minerals for its own growth.

Growth of mistletoe is slow at first, but in 6 to 8 years, a plant may be 3 feet across. Branches usually swell around the infected area, and growth is sometimes sparse beyond the mistletoe. Trees that are infested with mistletoe usually continue to survive for many years, but their overall growth and vigor may be reduced. However, if the mistletoe spreads to most of a tree’s branches, the tree will die.

Since the haustoria of mistletoe spread through the branch a foot or more from the point of attachment, control is usually done by pruning. Remove the infected limb where it meets a larger branch, otherwise the mistletoe will re-sprout.

You can also control mistletoe by cutting it off flush with the branch and wrapping the area with several layers of black plastic, taped firmly to the tree. Since the mistletoe needs light to grow, the new sprouts will be killed by the darkness under the plastic within a couple of years. This method, however, may give only temporary control.

Mistletoe is a poisonous plant. Eating any part of the plant can cause drowsiness, blurred vision, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, weakness and seizures. Despite its dangers, mistletoe has a history of medicinal use. The European varieties have been used for centuries in traditional medicine to treat seizures, headaches, infertility, hypertension and arthritis. In Europe today, it is used as a treatment for cancer.

Mistletoe has always been admired for its ability to stay green all winter. So we can enjoy it for holiday decorations and know that it gives the birds delicious berries to eat.

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