Mistletoe has symbolic and practical value
Mistletoe is most famous as having the power to force a kiss between those standing beneath its green leaves and white berries.
Often used as a symbol of renewal because it stays green all winter, mistletoe is also is important to wildlife, and it may have critical value for humans, too, reports the National Wildlife Federation.
Extracts from mistletoe — newly used in Europe to combat colon cancer, the second greatest cause of cancer death in Europe and the Americas — show signs of being more effective against cancer, and less toxic to humans, than standard chemotherapy.
The National Wildlife federation presents these mistletoe facts that offer a new respect for the plant:
• There are 1,300 mistletoe species worldwide. The continental United States and Canada are home to more than 30 species, and Hawaii harbors another six.
• Globally, more than 20 mistletoe species are endangered.
• All mistletoes grow as parasites on the branches of trees and shrubs. The genus name of North America's oak mistletoe—by far the most common species in the eastern United States—is Phoradendron, Greek for “tree thief.”
• Ancient Anglo-Saxons noticed that mistletoe often grows where birds leave droppings, which is how mistletoe got its name: In Anglo-Saxon, “mistel” means “dung” and “tan” means “twig,” hence, “dung-on-a-twig.”
• Mistletoe produces sticky seeds that can attach to birds and mammals for a ride to new growing sites. The ripe white berries of dwarf mistletoe, native to the western United States and Canada, can explode, scattering seeds as far as 50 feet.
When a mistletoe seed lands on a suitable host, it sends out roots that penetrate the tree and draw on its nutrients and water. Mistletoes also can produce energy through photosynthesis in their green leaves. As they mature, mistletoes grow into thick, often-rounded masses of branches and stems until they look like baskets, sometimes called “witches' brooms.”
• Trees infested with mistletoe die early because of the parasitic growth, producing dead trees useful to nesting birds and mammals. A mistletoe-infested forest may produce three times more cavity nesting birds than a forest lacking mistletoe.
• A variety of birds nest directly in witches' brooms, including house wrens, chickadees, mourning doves and pygmy nuthatches. Researchers found that 43 percent of spotted owl nests in one forest were associated with witches' brooms and that 64 percent of all Cooper's hawk nests in northeastern Oregon were in mistletoe. Several tree squirrel species also nest in witches' brooms.
• Three kinds of U.S. butterflies depend on mistletoe for survival: the great purple hairstreak, the thicket hairstreak and the Johnson's hairstreak. These butterflies lay eggs on mistletoe, and their young eat the leaves. The adults of all three species feed on mistletoe nectar, as do some species of native bees.
• The mistletoe's white berries are toxic to humans but are favored during autumn and winter — when other foods are scarce — by mammals ranging from deer and elk to squirrels, chipmunks and porcupines. Many bird species, such as robins, chickadees, bluebirds and mourning doves, eat the berries.
• The kissing custom may date to at least the 1500s in Europe. It was practiced in the early United States: Washington Irving referred to it in “Christmas Eve,” from his 1820 collection of essays and stories, “ The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent .” In Irving's day, each time a couple kissed under a mistletoe sprig, they removed one of the white berries. When the berries were all gone, so was the sprig's kissing power. Homeowners can make their yards hospitable to wildlife with mistletoe, other native plants and features that can turn a backyard landscape into a wildlife habitat.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Penguins notebook: Bennett status remains fluid
- Pittsburgh man gets 2 life terms in slaying of Beaver Falls couple
- Steelers notebook: Defense tasked with stopping Graham
- IUP student dies from injuries after he was pinned beneath car
- Pirates star McCutchen marries in private ceremony
- Fire destroys Armstrong County tavern
- Monongahela paramedic dies in the line of duty
- Jury finds Rayshawn Williams guilty of first-degree murder
- Allegheny Twp. residents challenge legality of drilling in neighborhoods
- Pitt center Randall rebounds from injury
- Man charged in New Stanton Sunoco robbery