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Mistletoe has mysterious traditions

Posted: December 25, 2011 - 1:11am  |  Updated: December 25, 2011 - 2:58am
 Christmas tradition dictates that couples get to kiss when standing under the mistletoe. Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grown on a wide variety of trees.  Special Photo
Special Photo
Christmas tradition dictates that couples get to kiss when standing under the mistletoe. Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grown on a wide variety of trees.

Christmas Day has finally arrived.

I hope everyone got what they wished for or needed.

The tradition around our house is that we get together as a family on Christmas Eve and open gifts. Then, on Christmas Day, the little ones open the gifts from Santa.

There are many traditions at Christmas. One of them has to do with mistletoe. The other day, I was watching a Christmas movie and someone was walking around at a gathering holding mistletoe over people’s heads and getting them to kiss.

The Christmas kiss is all that most people know about mistletoe. However, mistletoe has a fascinating history.

There are many theories about how mistletoe became connected with Christmas and kissing. A French tradition maintains that mistletoe was growing on the tree that was used to make the cross on which Jesus was crucified. Consequently, mistletoe was cursed and forever denied a place to live and grow on earth.

The Druids in the first century believed that mistletoe had fertility and healing powers and provided protection against witches. Sprigs from the ceremonial mistletoe were thought to keep one safe from evil spirits and storms.

In the eighth century, the Vikings believed that mistletoe had the power to raise the dead. This began with the tale of Balder, the god of the summer or god of peace, who was killed with an arrow made of mistletoe and then revived by mistletoe. His mother, the goddess of love and beauty, then celebrated by kissing everyone who walked underneath the mistletoe.

No matter how fascinating the history of mistletoe, it is a parasitic plant that lives and feeds on other plants, mainly trees. The mistletoe gets all of its water and nutrients from the host plant. In fact, the mistletoe will out-compete the host for water and nutrients. In times of drought, the mistletoe will take the water away from the host because the mistletoe has a greater water demand.

This reduced flow of water to limbs will cause dieback of branch ends. Also, the vigor of the tree will be reduced, and in an extreme case death of the tree will occur. It usually takes years for a tree to die from mistletoe.

How are trees infected with mistletoe? Birds are the true propagators of this plant. Mistletoe produces white or red berries, depending on the species, that birds love to eat. They spread the seeds through their droppings.

This is how mistletoe got its name. In the second century, “Mistel” was the Anglo-Saxon word for dung, and “tan” was the word for twig. Misteltan is the old English name for mistletoe.

Birds that are seed eaters are the ones that mainly spread mistletoe. Some of the species are robins and thrushes, and the one that mainly spreads the seeds in our area is the mockingbird.

The birds eat the berries and digest the pulp around the seed. The seed is covered with a sticky covering that will glue it to the limb.

Seeds can germinate anywhere if the temperature and moisture are suitable, but only seeds that lodge on thin bark of twigs and small branches of a suitable host will cause an infection. After a few days, tiny roots appear and their flattened tips enable them to work their way through the bark and into the tree, eventually rooting the plant securely to the branch and enabling it to take nutrients from its host.

The main tree species that mistletoe thrive on are oaks, elms and maples.

Now is a good time to see if trees are infected with mistletoe since the trees have lost their leaves for the winter.

The leaves of mistletoe stay green year-round.

Trees that are infested with mistletoe can be helped by removing the infestations. This will slow the mistletoe, but it will grow back.

To help the tree overcome the mistletoe, keep the tree as healthy as possible. This can be done by use of mulch and lightly fertilizing the tree.

There is a chemical on the market that can help control mistletoe, but it is very costly and the price keeps people from using it.

Mistletoe is poisonous, so if it is used in the house keep the plant and the berries away from small children and pets.

I hope that everyone enjoys the rest of Christmas and has a Happy New Year.

 

Charles Phillips is a retired Columbia County Extension Service agent and operates Hort Consulting. He can be reached at cphillipshort@comcast.net, or at (706) 836-2152.

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Comments (1)

Little Lamb

Name?

Yes, maybe the chemical is costly and therefore not often purchased. But is that any reason to hide the name of the chemical from the readers of this article?

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