Mistletoe may be best known for its association with romantic holiday kisses, but this plant offers much more than a chance to pucker up. Here are 10 fascinating facts about mistletoe.
There’s more than one kind of mistletoe.
Found primarily in tropical and temperate locations, mistletoe comes in a multitude of varieties. There are some 1,300 species of mistletoe in the world. More than 20 of them are endangered.
Mistletoe is parasitic.
Phoradendron, the genus name of the most common mistletoe species in the eastern United States, is Greek for “tree thief.” It’s an appropriate name for a semi-parasitic evergreen plant that grows on the branches of trees and shrubs. Interestingly, mistletoe is not totally dependent on its host. It can also produce its own food through photosynthesis.
Mistletoe is difficult to eradicate.
As a semi-parasitic plant, mistletoe sinks shallow roots through the bark of its host, infiltrating its inner tissues and stealing minerals, food and water. Cutting off the visible plant isn’t enough to remove the mistletoe; it can regrow from the roots planted within its host. To truly eradicate a mistletoe infestation, you’ll have to remove the entire branch or branches that have been affected.
Mistletoe’s name is descriptive.
The name mistletoe is thought to spring from a combination of two Anglo-Saxon words: “mistel,” which means dung, and “tan,” which means twig. The name describes the manner in which the plant spreads. Mistletoe is often found among bird droppings because birds eat its berries and then distribute the seeds in their waste.
Mistletoe’s magic spans more than one holiday.
As mistletoe grows, it stems and branches form thick, rounded balls that resemble baskets. These green orbs are often called witches’ brooms, a name that lends a touch of magic and a bit of a Halloween feel to this humble plant. When fully mature, these witches’ brooms can weigh around 50 pounds and span widths of 5 feet.
Mistletoe is poisonous.
Mistletoe is toxic for humans and many of the animals people share their homes with, which is why experts recommend that households with pets or children decorate with the artificial version. Mistletoe’s poisonous properties are concentrated in the leaves, but the entire plant is full of phoratoxin. Eating or drinking any part of the plant can lead to blurred vision, drowsiness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and seizures.
Mistletoe also shows promise as a medicine.
Like other toxins, mistletoe also has potential medicinal uses. Over the centuries, it has been used by various cultures to treat ailments like headaches, seizures, hypertension, infertility and arthritis. Today, scientists say it shows promise as a cancer treatment.
Mistletoe is an important food source for wildlife.
Mistletoe may be poisonous to humans, but many birds find its berries a delightful addition to their diet. Bluebirds, robins, chickadees and mourning doves all munch on them. Squirrels, porcupines, chipmunks, deer and elk also find mistletoe a handy addition to their winter menus.
Mistletoe shelters birds, animals and butterflies.
Mistletoe’s growth drains its host’s strength, creating cavities within the tree that provide homes for various birds and animals. Squirrels and birds like chickadees, mourning doves, pygmy nuthatches, wrens, Cooper’s hawks and spotted owls will also nest in the witches’ brooms. Even butterflies get in on the action. In the U.S., a trio of butterflies uses mistletoe for almost everything. The great purple hairstreak, and the Johnson’s hairstreak and the thicket hairstreak all lay their eggs on mistletoe. Their offspring feed on the leaves, and the adults dine on the nectar.
Mistletoe can be explosive — literally!
Not every species of mistletoe depends on birds to spread its seeds. Found in the western U.S. and Canada, the dwarf mistletoe scatters its seeds with a bang. Its white berries explode, propelling seeds at speeds exceeding 50 miles per hour and spreading them up to 50 feet away.
Stealing kisses under the mistletoe is a longstanding tradition that most people consider great fun. Why not use your new knowledge of this holiday favorite to start a conversation? It just might inspire some welcome experimentation regarding mistletoe’s power to elicit kisses.