I found many large clumps of mistletoe in nearby trees today. The poor trees are being robbed by their lovely tenants.
Mistletoe is a tricky thief. It uses the tree for nutrients and to gain elevation without bothering to grow in height itself.
The genus name of Phorandendron flavescens means tree thief.
Mistletoe depends on birds to eat its berries. The sticky, berry-laden poop sticks to the feathers until the bird lands on a tree and picks them off. This increases the chance that the seed will end up on a branch.
The name mistletoe means dung on twig.
So, sticky is its second trick. Attracting a bird to eat its berries is the first.
Its third trick is to grow root-like haustoria that penetrate the tree bark and tap into the trees’ nutrient moving tissues. No need to get its own water or nutrients, it steals from its host. Mistletoe can successfully photosynthesize because its seed is high up in the branches nearer the sun without ever supporting itself.
Both the berries and leaves are poisonous to humans. Some of its compounds have been tried to treat diseases.
So why do we use this trickster in our holiday traditions? Why hang a poisonous thief over our doors and kiss under it?
There are many legends about the origins of this tradition. I have my own hypothesis.
During the cold winter months, we are lonely for anything green. Balls of green leaves and pearly berries seem almost magical among the stark browns and grays.
We admire the grit of anything high and green when everything else is dormant.
These admirable qualities are due to tricks and theft. The prices for its height were paid by birds with sticky bottoms. The support of the tree keeps it able to remain green while others must pull in their resources and save them for spring.
I won’t be hanging any mistletoe over my door. A parasite does not inspire any romantic thoughts from me.
The tricky, sticky mistletoe can remain on the poor tree.