Mistletoe: Dung on a stick or symbol of Christmas?

Mistletoe Cressler - Science Support Photo/Alan Cressler

Dr. Bob Gilbert – Columnist

Dr. Bob Gilbert

Several winters ago, on a foggy morning we looked out of the window towards Wayah and found an owl perched high in a defoliated oak tree.  Except it was not a real owl but the outline of one created by a clump of mistletoe.  We showed several friends a photograph of it and not everyone could find it.  The next day we looked again, the light and fog were so different that we could not find the owl image.  Ever since, we have unsuccessfully looked for it even though the mistletoe is still there.  Perhaps the clump is slightly bigger or changed shape?  Certainly, I have not changed.   I began to wonder how the mistletoe became perched so high in a mature oak. Also, I had to admit that I knew very little about this plant so I started reading.  This is what I have learned. 

Mistletoe is a parasitic evergreen plant that lives on various tree species, oaks, elms, willows, fir, pines and apples.  There are many different species all over the world.  The American mistletoe is Phoradendron leucarpum. “Leu” means “white” and “carp” is a seed.  “Phora” is Greek meaning “thief” and “dendron” means “tree.”  So, this is a parasitic tree-like plant with white berries that grows on host tree branches. Oddly it is listed as a shrub even though it does not grow on the ground.  The word mistletoe comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “mistel.”  Its translation is “dung” and “tel’”meaning stick.  So, the old English word for mistletoe was misteltan, means dung on a stick.

One report says mistletoe is poisonous to cats and small animals. But it is listed as an “all-heal,” meaning it can be used to treat many human conditions.   In folk medicine it is used as a digestive aid, heart tonic and sedative.  Also, it is used to treat arthritis, hysteria, mental problems and to stimulate glands.  But opinions vary on how safe and effective it is as a home remedy.

Mistletoe is a hemiparastic (half) or semiparastic plant.  It has evergreen leaves that can produce some of its own food by photosynthesis.  The berries are eaten by birds and the seeds are deposited as droppings. The seeds have a sticky substance called “viscin” on their surface so they stay in place and not roll off a branch.  As an aside, my mother used to always tell us “never look up with your mouth open.” She was not thinking about mistletoe.  As the seed germinates, a specialized root called a hausrorium forms that slowly penetrates through the tree bark into the inner layers of wood.  It is only when this happens that the plant becomes partially dependent on its host.  

Mistletoe blooms in late fall or early winter.  The whitish blooms are small and not showy.  The white, almost translucent, berries take until the following autumn to mature and are able to germinate.

In England, mistletoe symbolizes the healing power of the Lord.  It adorns church altars at Christmas time.  It also became a token of goodwill and was hung over doorways.  Kissing under the mistletoe became a custom in Europe.  A man could kiss any woman who stood under the mistletoe.  A woman who refused was destined to have bad luck.  After each kiss the couple was to remove one berry from the clump.  When all the berries had been removed the romantic qualities of the mistletoe were used up.  There seems to be some symbolism here.

Although this is a parasitic plant it seldom does enough damage to the host or do serious harm.  Many times, when growing high up in a tree, it is collected with a gun.  It is easy to find in the winter when the host trees have lost their leaves.

Dr. Bob Gilbert, now living in Franklin is co-founder of Smith Gilbert Gardens in Kennesaw, Ga.