Mistletoe

Text Box:  Just about a year ago, I wrote a column on mistletoe. In my mind’s eye, I was walking through an oak woodland in Wisconsin. That autumn there were mushrooms on the trees, as well as clumps of mistletoe. So, in this column I’ll again change the season to winter and the time to long ago.

          The sky is clear without a cloud. I’m alone and can hear only my footfalls crunching on the ice-crusted snow. I’m cold. Ahead and to my right, I see something green! Impossible—all the trees are bare. It’s wintertime! I feel a tremor of fear; this green thing must be magical. Cautiously, I move forward. Yes, it is a cluster of green foliage in the barren limbs of an oak…there are white berries too. White fruit is a clue to poisonous. Magic!

          And from such experiences arose the legends and myths about mistletoe. Supposedly mistletoe within a home would protect it from lightening or fire. And kissing? Probably an ancient Scandinavian legend for it was improper to wage warfare in sight of the mistletoe and the plant was considered an aphrodisiac (from its association with Frigga the goddess of love). And legends continue, as well as the kissing and its etiquette.

          Of course, our mistletoe looks like what one would expect in an arid region. These mistletoes grow on juniper (cedar), on spruce, fir and pine in our area and they’re “host specific” with each tree having its own variety of mistletoe. The mistletoe appears as brownish clumps on our trees and, as parasites, they may actually kill their host. Commonly they’re called “witches brooms.” The Old English term mista = dung, and tan = twig, leads to misteltan which leads us to “mistletoe.”

          This photo was taken going down the Land’s End Road late last summer. The botanical name is Phoradendron juniperinum. Greek phor means” thief and dendron refers to trees. You can see the damage being done to this juniper: many branches are dead. So as you drive through our juniper-cedar woodlands watch for our native mistletoe. It’s easily seen—it’s nearly everywhere.