One of the Christmas traditions that I remember as a boy was my aunt hanging mistletoe over one of her doors. My brother and I would avoid that door as though it had the plague. We just didn't go for all that kissing.
We would go climb the trees to get the mistletoe, but that is about as far as we were willing to go with this Christmas tradition. As I got older, I decided it wasn't so bad after all.
The Christmas kiss is all that most people know about mistletoe, but 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 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 water away from the host because the mistletoe has a greater water demand. By reducing the flow of water to limbs, branches will die. Also, you will have reduced vigor of the tree and in an extreme case you can have death of the tree. It usually takes years for a tree to die from mistletoe.
So, how are trees infected with mistletoe? Birds are the true propagators. Mistletoe produces white or red berries 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. Mockingbirds mainly spread the seeds in our area. The birds eat the berries and digest the pulp around the seed. The seed is covered with a covering that will stick 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.
Mistletoe thrives on oaks, elms and maples.
Now is a good time to see if your trees are infected with mistletoe because they have lost their leaves for the winter. If you look up in your trees and see a green patch of growth, you have mistletoe.
The leaves of mistletoe stay green all year long. You can help your trees by removing the infestations. This will slow down the mistletoe, but it will grow back.
To help the tree overcome the mistletoe, you need to keep the tree as healthy as possible. This can be accomplished by using mulch and lightly fertilizing the tree.
Mistletoe is poisonous, and if you use it in the house, keep the plant and the berries away from small children and pets. But if you decide to put a piece of mistletoe over your doorway, there is a proper procedure.
The man should remove one berry each time he kisses a woman under the mistletoe. When there are no more berries, there is no more kissing.
Columbia County Extension agent Charles Phillips can be reached at (706) 868-3413 or by e-mail at email@example.com. The Extension Web address is www.ugaextension.com/columbia.
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