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Where did the idea of mistletoe come from?

Mistletoe provides food and nesting sites for birds such as bluebirds and cedar waxwings.
Mistletoe provides food and nesting sites for birds such as bluebirds and cedar waxwings. MCT

Mistletoe is an ectoparasite that can kill its host. It’s name comes from Saxon words that translate into “dung on a twig”.

Never-The-Less, some people will push others aside in order to stand under a sprig of this plant with the anticipation of getting a kiss. It’s not really a Christmas tradition. It was adapted from the Celts. Their priesthood, the Druids, believed that anything growing under, on or near their sacred oak trees had magical powers. To the ancient Celts, mistletoe appeared to thrive without any means of receiving sustenance.

Because of that ability, they thought that mistletoe was a ward against evil and would hang cuttings above entrances as an indication that former hatreds and grievances were forgiven. Today, mistletoe is harvested commercially. In the British Isles, you can buy seeds at your local garden center.

Mistletoe is an evergreen parasite that grows on the branches of trees. Over time. it can reach a width exceeding 1.5 meters. The leaves are oval, thick and have a leathery texture. The flowers are small and inconspicuous and form in the spring. The white, sticky berries show up in the fall.

Mistletoe isn’t like most plants. It gets everything it needs from its host. You find it attached to the limbs of trees where its roots penetrate the host’s conductive tissues. It grows very quickly and can live up to 10 years. In large enough numbers, they can significantly weaken even the largest tree and, over time, can reduce its ability to fight off disease and seasonal stresses like cold and drought.

Controlling this parasite is problematic at best., It is generally hard to reach and its roots are set firmly and deeply intuits host. Just breaking off the mistletoe doesn’t do any good in the long run. The roots will just regrow a new plant over time. If you plan to mechanically remove the mistletoe, you’ll have to cut off the section of the limb to which the parasite is attached, If you find it on a small limb, prune the entire branch at a point 30 centimeters toward the trunk from where the mistletoe is growing.

A second option exists. There is a plant growth regulator called Florel that can be sprayed directly onto the mistletoe. Overtime, it will remove all of the exposed parts of the plant. It won’t kill the rots. So, a number of treatments will probably be necessary. Heavy infestations could take up to four years to eliminate. Even though it takes a great deal of time for it to work, Florel has distinctive advantages over her mechanical method. For one, it’s less labor intensive. For another, it stops the production of seeds; thus restricting further spread.

One final thing before I let you go and stand under your mistletoe. Its berries are poisonous and should be kept well out of the reach of children and pets.

I wish you and all a salubrious solstitial celebration.

Tim Lockley, a specialist in entomology, is retired from a 30-year career as a research scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For answers to individual questions, please send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Tim Lockley, c/o Sun Herald, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi MS 39535.

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