Monday, December 21, 2009
Deb Babcock's gardening column appears Mondays in Steamboat Today.
Find more gardening columns here.
Steamboat Springs It’s hard to believe that the romantic characteristics we attribute to mistletoe are given to a parasitic plant, but it’s true.
Mistletoe (phoradendron flavenscens) is an American native plant found growing on all kinds of trees, including pine, spruce, apple and oak. The European mistletoe (viscum album) is another variety of this holiday decoration.
Most forms of mistletoe attach to the branches or trunk of a host tree and then penetrate the bark with its roots to steal nutrients. There are some species that can use photosynthesis to make their own food, but most are parasites and, if left to multiply unchecked, can kill the host plant. Mostly, however, mistletoe deforms the tree, causing it to grow an unruly mess of twigs and branches that we call witches’ broom.
In the winter, mistletoe is easy to spot in deciduous trees because its leaves stay green. Mistletoe leaves are leathery and pointed with sticky red or white berries. It flowers in a myriad of colors including yellow, red and green.
There are many traditions and folklore associated with mistletoe. Early Europeans used it as a ceremonial plant, connected to the mythical Nordic Baldur woman, Freya. Vikings thought it had the power to raise humans from the dead. The Druids felt the plant could protect against poisons, illness and witchcraft spells. In their time, if enemies met under mistletoe in the forest, they were required to be peaceful until the next day. This may be the origin of the custom of kissing under a ball of mistletoe as a sign of goodwill.
In earlier, more superstitious times, mistletoe was hung from ceilings and doorways to keep evil spirits and witches away. Other civilizations credit mistletoe with fertility rituals, with warding off fire and lightning, and honoring love and beauty.
Mistletoe supposedly has medicinal properties, also. As far back as fifth century BC, mistletoe has been reportedly used to combat dizziness, made into an ointment for open sores, used to stop bleeding, and relieve other pain including cancer, radiation damage, rheumatoid arthritis and more.
Mistletoe is spread throughout the forest mostly by birds. It was discovered to appear on branches where birds had left droppings, which is how the name was derived. Mistel is an Anglo-Saxon word for dung. Tan, a word close to “toe,” is a word for twig, making mistletoe “dung on a twig.” How romantic. Usually the plant will begin growing within six weeks of being “planted,” but it takes five years to flower.
If you wish to observe strict mistletoe etiquette, one of a couple should pluck a berry when they kiss under the mistletoe and when the last berry is gone, there should be no more kissing.
Deb Babcock is a master gardener through the Routt County’s Cooperative Extension Office.