Have you ever seen a mistletoe plant in the wild? It’s a beautiful sight. I first saw mistletoe here in Virginia when neighbors pointed it out to me (and shot some down from the tree!). Today on the High Bridge Trail, I found a beautiful grove of mistletoe and researched the plant a bit more. It’s a fascinating plant and one worth getting to know.
About the Mistletoe Plant
Mistletoe is actually an obligate hemiparasitic plant, which means it must live off of another plant. In the case of the Christmas mistletoe we know and love, that means the oak tree. Worldwide, there are 1,300 species. Here in North America, mistletoe is plentiful.
The evergreen plant grows on the branches of oaks, sending in roots through the bark layer called the cambium to tap into the trees’ water and nutrients. Over time, this does weaken the tree, and botanists tell us that trees infested with mistletoe die sooner than trees remaining without it.
Mistletoe provides an important ecological function, however. The clusters, called colloquially witches’ brooms, provide nesting sites for numerous bird species: house wrens, chickadees, mourning doves and pygmy nuthatches. Owls and hawks like to nest there too, including Cooper’s Hawks and the spotted owl. And the ubiquitous squirrel also steals some witches’ broom for its nests! Talk about a useful plant for wildlife.
How Mistletoe Is Propagated
The white (not red) berries on the mistletoe plant are poisonous to humans but necessary for many wildlife species. The seeds stick to the fur or feathers of animals and find new homes as animals such as squirrels grab a berry, scamper to another oak tree, and deposit it in a place hospitable to mistletoe.
Another way in which this interesting plant propagates or spreads to a new host tree is through seed dispersal. Each white berry contains just one seed. Some berries explode, sending the seeds shooting off like missiles to find new hosts.
Mistletoe plants grow worldwide, and about 30 species are now endangered. We are just beginning to understand the properties of mistletoe. The National Cancer Institute lists mistletoe as one botanical-based or herbal-based remedy used and tested for the treatment of colon cancer. The FDA has not approved mistletoe treatments – yet. But in Europe, extract of mistletoe is used successfully as part of a comprehensive treatment plan for people with cancer. Perhaps someday we will see it here.
No matter what, mistletoe is a fascinating plant. I’m grateful I was able to learn how to spot it in the wild and that I found this grove today. It always makes me feel like I’ve connected somehow to my past, to the ancestors who may have venerated mistletoe among the druids and ancients back in Europe.
Jeanne Grunert is a certified Virginia Master Gardener and the author of several gardening books. Her garden articles, photographs, and interviews have been featured in The Herb Companion, Virginia Gardener, and Cultivate, the magazine of the National Farm Bureau. She is the founder of The Christian Herbalists group and a popular local lecturer on culinary herbs and herbs for health, raised bed gardening, and horticulture therapy.