595 Phoradendron leucarpumCommon Names: American mistletoe, mistletoe Family: Loranthaceae (mistletoe Family)
Most of us know mistletoe as the sprig of green leaves and white berries at Christmastime that bestows the right to kiss the person under it. But mistletoe is a real plant that grows as a semi-parasite on trees. American mistletoe is an evergreen shrub that forms clumps 1-3 ft (0.3-0.9 m) in diameter on branches of broad-leaved trees. Mistletoe leaves are opposite, thick and leathery, oval to round, and 1-2 in (2.5-5.1 cm) long. The flowers are small and inconspicuous and the fruits are white or yellowish berries about 0.25 in (0.6 cm) in diameter. The bushy clumps, usually on branches near treetop, are most visible in winter on deciduous trees that have lost their leaves. Look for it especially on pecan trees, but mistletoe can occur on almost any forest tree. It's common on live oaks, but harder to see.
American mistletoe, Phoradendron leucarpum, occurs on hardwood trees in the eastern US from New Jersey to Florida and west to Texas and Illinois. There are other species of mistletoe in western North America, tropical America, and in Europe. The western US mistletoes are parasitic on conifers.
CultureAccording to Hortus Third, mistletoe is not cultivated. Light: Mistletoe grows on tree branches in filtered sunlight. Moisture: It obtains water from its host tree. Hardiness: USDA Zones 6 - 11. Propagation: The seeds of mistletoe are sticky, the better to hold fast on tree limbs. Try removing the seeds from a berry and placing them on an exposed branch of any broad-leaved tree. That's what birds do. You could be the first person to cultivate this weird little plant!
European mistletoe (Viscum album) was believed to be magical by the ancient Greeks, Romans and Celtic druids. The custom of kissing under the mistletoe began more than 2000 years ago! One tradition holds that a man is entitled to kiss a woman under the mistletoe, after which he removes one berry. When all berries are gone, the kissing ends. In some traditions, a kiss under the mistletoe means the lovers will marry. In some, if a girl is not kissed under the mistletoe, it means she will not marry in the following year.
Native Americans used infusions of mistletoe roots and berries to induce abortion, and externally to relieve rheumatism. Modern researchers have identified active compounds in mistletoe that have potential value in treating smooth muscle problems, hypertension, and cancer.
Mistletoe has chlorophyll and produces its own food, but it also has modified roots that extend into the host tree's circulatory system to derive water and minerals. It is not a serious pest, however, and even heavy infestations cause little loss of vigor to the host tree. Pruning mistletoe causes increased bud development and results in more shoots over a wider area.
The common name, mistletoe, derives from ancient Anglo-Saxon words for dung and twig, and bespeaks the observation that mistletoe often sprouts where a bird left its droppings on a branch.
All parts of the mistletoe plant are poisonous, and people have died from eating the berries. Have safe and happy holidays - keep arrangements and decorations containing mistletoe well out of reach of children!
Steve Christman 12/04/99; updated 12/28/03,12/1/12