Mistletoe is the common English name of many species of parasitic/hemiparasitic plants. Pests to many ornamental trees, most mistletoe parasitize their hosts and can cause abnormal growths called “witches’ brooms.” Growths that can deform branches and decrease reproductive abilities. Capable of producing their own food, mistletoes are abundant in both temperate and tropical climates. Slow growing, yet persistent, their eventual demise seems directly related to the demise of its host. And the only effective control is the removal of this parasite… and there seems to be a few ways to do just that.
For years I have heard stories of people shooting mistletoe out of trees. And while my sources are trustworthy “plant people” in the industry, I myself have never seen it. Thankfully we live in a technological age where you can easily Google or YouTube such things. After a quick YouTube search, my curiosity was confirmed. There are many videos showcasing mistletoe being shot out of the sky with rifles. One video, in particular, shows a Ruger 10/22® American rifle knocking down mistletoe, several stories high, using Remington 22 Thunderbolt ammunition. Another video shows a “gentler, kinder” approach whereby a group of kayaker’s trek down a waterway harvesting mistletoe with a makeshift hook on a large pole. A couple of simple turns and the hook easily separates the parasite from its host. Either way, the goal to remove and free one from another is achieved.
Neither a tree, a shrub, or a vine, mistletoe has no roots, yet is able to grow on a wide range of hosts. North American native mistletoe’s, Phoradendron leucarpum, ancestry traces back to that of the European. Producing some photosynthesis in their life cycle, their contributions to their host seems to end in tragedy. Most mistletoe seed are dispersed by birds and this brings me to another YouTube video. A five-minute tutorial educating me on the “positive effects” mistletoe can have on the environment. The video speaks directly to the plant’s rich source of nectar and fruits and the safe habitat the plant provides for birds. Ideas I have never contemplated. Animals depending on the plant’s leaves and young shoots for food and transferring pollen between plants fascinated me. In fact, Mistletoe- with Dr. Dave’s words were so captivating, I replayed his video a few times to get his wording right. “Their nutrient rich litter that rains down to the understory below acts like a constant stream of fertilizer and mulch, trapping the water in and giving all the other plants lots of nutrients to grow and thrive.” I found these words to be almost poetic, giving me pause to appreciate a plant I had thought of as a constant irritant.
Reportedly there are about 1,500 species of mistletoe and their toxicity levels vary. More concentrated levels in the leaves and berries, medicine continues to try to harness and add value towards the treatment of arthritis, high blood pressure and infertility. And while the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved mistletoe, it apparently is considered as a complimentary medicine for the treatment of cancer and as a veterinary herbal medicine.
Mistletoe, relevant to many cultures throughout history, is rich in lore. Pre-Christian cultures regarded the white berries as a symbol of male fertility, while Norse mythology speaks of an arrow made of mistletoe wood used to end a sibling strife. The Romans associated mistletoe with peace, love and understanding and in the Western world it’s associated with Christmas as a decoration under which lovers are expected to kiss.
Most mistletoes are evergreen and fairly easy to spot once their deciduous hosts have lost their leaves. Despite the fact that most mistletoe parasitize a number of host plants and some species parasitize other mistletoe, there are positive contributions made by this plant, enriching lives and supporting ecosystems. For me, mistletoe will forever conjure up images of rifles and shots fired, Norse Gods and those committed to one another. Mistletoe is a plant like no other. Steeped in folklore, believed to have magical powers, used for medicinal purposes, supporting ecosystems and the target for some, I can’t think of another plant quite like it?