Mistletoe – Tradition, Kisses, & Benefit to Wildlife

— Written By and last updated by Nancie Mandeville
en Español

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Mistletoe in tree

How many of you have stolen a kiss from someone during the holidays under the mistletoe? I admit that over the years I have given and received a few! This is a common holiday tradition. Another is to gather it using a shotgun to bring it down out of the tree!

Mistletoe is also called Christmas mistletoe, American mistletoe, and Oak mistletoe. It will grow on many hardwood trees, including oak, hickory, red maple, pecan, black gum, and apple.

Mistletoe is called a sub-shrub, even though its roots are not in the soil. This plant is considered hemiparasitic because it can produce its own chlorophyll and photosynthesize. Seeds are distributed mostly by birds who feed on the berries. The seed passes through the bird’s digestive system and maintains a sticky covering so that when the bird passes it, the seed will stick to branches of a host plant. The word mistletoe comes from Anglo-Saxon words meaning “dung” and “twig”.

Once the mistletoe seed is attached to the bark of a preferred host, the seed will germinate and grow through crevices in the bark into the tree where it takes the water and nutrients that it needs. It takes a few years to grow from seed to a plant that flowers and reproduces.

Most healthy trees will tolerate mistletoe plants in their canopy with no ill effects.

Trees that are heavily infested can become less vigorous and stunted. Because of this, if more stress happens from root damage, drought, disease, or insects the tree could die. You can manage this by watering during drought, proper mulching, fertilization based on soil tests, and managing insects and disease early in an infestation.

Mistletoe berries and all parts of the plants are poisonous to humans. However, birds rely on mistletoe berries for food and use the plant for shelter and nesting. The plant also serves as a host plant for the caterpillar of the Great Purple Hairstreak butterfly. If you have trees with mistletoe, it can be considered a sign that you have a healthy, diverse bird population.

If you want to learn more about the lore and history of mistletoe, just conduct an internet search.

Enjoy the holidays and if you get the chance grab a kiss under the mistletoe this holiday season!