In Texas, ‘tis the season for mistletoeThe mistletoe is both reviled as a tree parasite and revered as a symbol of hope and good fortune.
Thirty-five species of true mistletoe grow in the Americas. These mistletoes belong to the genus “Phoradendron.” Translated, the Greek word means “tree thief.” Texas has four species of mistletoe, two of which grow in Milam County.
Trying to distinguish between the different mistletoes can be difficult. The mistletoe found in Texas has slightly hairy leaves with waxy white to pinkish berries. The Eastern U.S. mistletoe, commonly called the “Christmas Mistletoe”, has shiny leaves.
Lots of history surrounds the mistletoe. In North America, Native Americans brewed a tincture, with which people would bathe their heads to rid themselves of headaches. It has been used as a stimulant in Europe to treat angina and heart ailments.
Most of our mistletoe customs, however, aren’t medicinal in nature. It was considered a symbol of fertility to the early Britons, Romans, and Norse. The European mistletoe grows mainly on apple and oaks. It is hard to find on oak trees, hence the Celtic Druids revered it. They considered it the heart of the oak, and at the time of the Winter and Summer Solstices would gather it with a golden sickle. It was hung from doorways, and people would kiss each other underneath it, to symbolize peace. The branch would continue to hang from the doorway to protect against lightening, thunder, and evil.
The kissing custom actually comes from Scandinavian mythology. Loki, god of destruction, slew Baldur, god of peace, with an arrow made from mistletoe. The other gods asked for Baldur’s life to be restored. When it was, his mother hung mistletoe and kissed all who walked underneath it, signifying her love and forgiveness.
Mistletoe is a favorite browse plant for wildlife, as the berries and leaves are high in protein. It is one of the favored plants of the white-tailed deer. The larvae of the Great Purple Hairstreak butterfly feed only on mistletoe, and the adults drink the nectar from the minuscule flowers, and breed within the branches of the plant.
Many birds rely on the mistletoe, including bluebirds. Even bees feed on the nectar and pollen from the flowers.
Here in Texas ranchers remove mistletoe from the trees for cattle food when other forage is scarce. However, all parts of the mistletoe are poisonous to humans.
Mistletoe feeds itself by photosynthesis, but also takes water and other nutrients from its host tree. It can usually be found growing only on older trees, as birds prefer to roost in the tops of mature trees. Birds eat the berries and deposit the seeds on the limbs, or wipe off their beaks on the limbs. The seeds are covered with a sticky material that adhere them to the tree limbs.
When the mistletoe grows, it uses a special root to force its way through the bark and grows its roots within the branch. It takes two to three years for the plant to mature. Only then will it produce berries.
Mistletoe doesn’t spread rapidly, but it is very difficult to kill. About the only way to get rid of it is to cut off the infected portion of the tree, about 12 inches below the mistletoe, or to remove it before it begins to produce berries.
Mistletoe doesn’t usually kill its host tree, but it can cause it stress, making it susceptible to other problems.
Economically, the sale of mistletoe during the holiday season provides income for many Texans. As well, infected mesquite has “mistletoe burls,” which occur where the mistletoe drills into the wood. It creates beautiful grains and patterns.
El Camino Real Master Naturalists: