Mistletoe has an ancient and interesting history.
Modern day mistletoe — Viscum album — is native to Great Britain but also is grown in California. To us, it is a plant used in a quaint Christmas tradition of kissing under its bundled branches and berries.
Ancient peoples, especially Druids, thought it possessed supernatural powers because it remained green in winter when other plants were brown, leafless or dormant. That probably accounts for its use in sacred rituals during the winter solstice.
In a Champaign County Extension newsletter, Alicia M. Kallal referenced a quote from Washington Irving printed in 1820. He said, “The mistletoe is still hung in farm-houses and kitchens at Christmas, and the young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under it, plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked the privilege ceases.”
There is a type of mistletoe native to southern Illinois — Phoradendron leucarpum. Phoradendron means “thief of the tree,” giving us a clue that it is a parasitic plant that feeds off its host. Mistletoe steals nutrients produced by the tree and water brought from the roots intended for the host tree. Although it doesn’t kill a tree, it can weaken it and slow its growth.
The berries are toxic to humans, but birds are immune and find them very appetizing. They also build nests in thick clumps of mistletoe. In fact, birds play an important part in seed dispersal.
Mistletoe grows only up high on the branches of trees. Dropping seeds on the ground at the base of the host tree is no good for continuing the species. It cannot grow on the ground. However, mistletoe has developed a clever way to get its seeds delivered back up into the canopy of other trees. The seeds are covered in a sticky coating that adheres to feathers and feet after being passed. To rid itself of the mess, the bird lands and scrapes it off onto another branch, thus dispersing the seeds to other trees. In fact, the word “mistletoe” is comprised of two Anglo-Saxon words meaning dung and twig.
For more information, call the University of Illinois Extension Master Gardeners of Edgar County at 217-465-8585.