By Meaghan English, TrueSouth Properties Wildlife Specialist
Tis the season to celebrate cold weather and rain! As you and your family decorate for Christmas, there is no doubt that you will hear about mistletoe in every other Christmas carol. This festive, yet invasive shrub is not only a symbol of Christmas time but it is also the kiss of death for many large trees. Many large crowned trees become host to this parasitic plant and it must be removed for the sake of the tree. To help you out this holiday season, I will give a description of the plant itself, the mythology behind mistletoe, and finally its uses.
Mistletoe, or Viscum album, was more commonly known as European mistletoe because it originated in Europe and Asia. Somehow it got transported over to the States and now we only recognize it as a Christmas symbol. The parasite can be found in a bright green cluster in the crown of large trees (poplar being the most popular, but can also be found in oaks and apple trees). Once established, Mistletoe begins to steal water and nutrients from the tree ultimately killing the tree altogether. The shrub also produces whitish berries (kissing berries in Christmas tales). It is best to remove the shrub altogether to save the tree. You can save the mistletoe for some uses that I will mention later on.
Who knew that such a terrible shrub would be celebrated at Christmas time? Many Christian myths and legends portray mistletoe as the symbol of fertility and love. That is why it is so often associated with kissing and signs of affection. It was once believed that Jesus’ cross was made from the wood of mistletoe, also giving it special meaning. Furthermore, it was once believed that hanging mistletoe inside your home would protect your house from lightning and/or fire. Today, many people hang mistletoe inside their homes as decoration or to humiliate young boys and girl at Christmas time!
Although our society views the plant as a Christmas parasite, some countries have deemed the shrub as medicine. German doctors use the leaves and twigs of mistletoe for circulatory and respiratory remedies. It has also been experimented as a possible cancer treatment. Some lab rats have proven that parts of mistletoe can be used to kill cancer cells, but there is not enough scientific proof for human use. Along with medicinal uses, mistletoe has also been used to trap birds. The sticky juice from the plant has been converted into “glue traps” to trap the birds. In my opinion, the most common for mistletoe today is decoration. Many people use it as a centerpiece on their dining room table or as a ball hanging from doorways or on Christmas trees.
Next time you see a bright green cluster of leaves in the top of a tree, chances are it is mistletoe and it needs to be removed! However, most of us will probably only experience mistletoe in its decorative state this Christmas season.
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