It’s hard to warm up to a parasite. The mere fact that one organism takes both sustenance and shelter from another without returning the favor just seems so wrong. Yet Grumpy finds a lot to like about the South’s most visible parasite, American mistletoe. All in all, it’s one cool plant.
Grumpy’s Not Alone
A lot of you think so too, mostly around Christmas time. That’s when you follow the example of European pagans and hang berry-laden springs above doorways hoping for a kiss. (Incidentally, American mistletoe — Phoradendron serotinum — is a completely different plant than European mistletoe — Viscum album — though they act the same way.) This strange custom apparently started because people believed mistletoe’s evergreen foliage and white berries worked as a fertility charm. This may explain the genesis of another strange custom called the “shotgun wedding.”
The easiest time to spot mistletoe is in winter when most of the trees it favors have dropped their leaves. Then you spy these big, green blobs swaying high up in the branches. How did they get there? Well, the process goes pretty much like this.
1. Bird eats mistletoe berry.
2. Bird digests mistletoe berry.
3. Bird flies to tree branch and poops out seed from berry.
4. Seed lodges in bark.
5. Seed sprouts and sends out rootlike structures that penetrate the branch and tap into the flow of water and nutrients.
6. Mistletoe eventually flowers, fruits, and starts the whole cycle over again.
Mistletoe’s Favorite Trees
Mistletoe infests more than 100 species of hardwood trees. Oaks, particularly water oak (Quercus nigra), are its top choices. Other targets include honey locust, hickory, maple, pecan, hackberry, apple, and linden. In these photos, mistletoe was literally eating up a row of Bradford pears on a median strip at a nearby mall. Way to go, mistletoe! If there’s one tree that deserves to be parasitized, it’s Bradford pear.
True or False?
1. “Mistletoe berries are highly poisonous.” Not so. While they are mildly toxic and can make you sick, you’d have to eat a mistletoe pie to really get in trouble and bakeries rarely offer mistletoe pies anymore.
2. “Many people harvest mistletoe by using rifles to shoot it out of the top of trees.” True. This is the whole basis for the Second Amendment. However, it’s best to make sure a deer hunter isn’t already hiding up there before you pull the trigger. And don’t use a shotgun, unless you want mistletoe salad.
3. “Mistletoe kills trees.” Highly unlikely. Mistletoe has green leaves, so it can make most of its own food. It attaches itself to tree branches mainly for support and access to sunlight for photosynthesis. Some people cut mistletoe from trees, but unless you sever the limb several inches below the point of mistletoe attachment, it just grows back, leaving you a mangled tree with mistletoe in it. So just accept the mistletoe and move on.
4. “Mistletoe is the state flower of Oklahoma.” Well, it was for over 100 years. As Grumpy explained in one on his most controversial and entertaining columns for Southern Living back in the 90’s, the reason Oklahomans chose mistletoe was because it was the only plant that grew in all three of their trees.
Well, Okies became irate and flooded Grumpy’s mailbox with things called “letters.” They angrily pointed out that Oklahoma had at least 13 trees and, besides, mistletoe was only chosen after some shady backroom dealing dethroned the leading candidate — the lovely alfalfa bloom.
But the damage had been done. In 2004, the state of Oklahoma demoted mistletoe to the state’s “floral emblem,” and replaced it as state flower with the Oklahoma rose — a hybrid tea rose that, unlike mistletoe, is not native to the Sooner State, was bred by Weeks Roses of California in 1964, and conveniently named ‘Oklahoma.’
Shame on you, Oklahoma! A state flower should always be native to its state! Just like the state flower of Alabama where Grumpy lives, the camellia — native to our most eastern county, Japan.