A Mistletoe Primer

Now that the holiday season is near, mistletoe is still used as a decoration. The tradition of receiving a kiss under a sprig of mistletoe dates back to pre-Christian times. The Druids of the Celtic regions of the British Isles thought mistletoe to be sacred and that it came from a goddess of love and marriage. These people would kiss beneath a bough of mistletoe during the winter solstice to gain happiness, long life, and fertility. The leaves were used as a healing herb. Some Christians identified mistletoe with Jesus Christ, the divine healer.

On the other hand, the plant can be toxic if ingested causing stomach and intestinal pain. As a safety precaution, you can place the entire mistletoe decoration in a piece of netting or plastic bag and away from direct contact of children and pets.

​Mistletoe is common here in cedar elm, hackberry,pecan, ash, mesquite, and juniper trees. It is semi-parasitic getting water and mineral from roots embedded in the tree and making its own food through photosynthesis. Mistletoe stays green during the winter.

​Birds that find the translucent berries a winter treat spread the seeds in their droppings. They digest the pulp and excrete the seeds where the sticky coating on the seeds cling to tree branches. Squirrels can also spread the seeds. Most trees can tolerate a few branch infestations, but can be weakened over the years causing some to die. If the mistletoe is green there is still life in the tree.

​The most effective method to manage mistletoe is to prune infected branches as soon as possible. When deciduous trees lose their leaves, any remaining green growth is probably mistletoe. This is the best time to prune before berries ripen giving birds a chance to spread the seeds. Pruning every two years will help control the spread as it takes three years to produce seed. Information on how to remove mistletoe can be found online at Texas Agri-Life and Texas A&M Forest Service websites.

​Woodworkers in Texas and the Southwest seek out old mesquite trees infested with mistletoe because the plant causes swelling of the wood grain producing a “mistletoe burl.” These burls produce beautiful and unique patterns that are incorporated into finer furniture and works of art. Mistletoe berries produce a sticky thread called viscin that allow seeds to stick and infest host plants. Researchers are studying the potential of using the threads as a glue for medical and technical purposes. The plant has also been used in cancer therapy for over a hundred years.

It is said that your chances of getting a kiss are greater under the mistletoe. If this is true, so are your chances of catching a cold or the flu.

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