Illinois Natural History Survey - University of Illinois

Mistletoe

 

Susan Post

Highly prized for Christmas decorations, folklore has it that mistletoe may shed its blessings on those who stand beneath it during the holiday season.  Unknown to most people, mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum) is a native plant of Illinois.

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 In the ancient forests of Europe, as autumn gave way to winter, the only greenery left was the shrubby growth of mistletoe high in the trees.  The fruit of the plant, white berries, was even produced in the winter.  In the eyes of the ancient civilizations sharing these same forests, such unique characteristics gave the plant extraordinary powers.  It was considered a sacred emblem to the Druids and other pagan peoples throughout Europe, and was recognized with several different names.

Primitive herbalists called it “all-heal” and used it in infusions and teas to promote growth and cure infertility.  The Anglos called it “Dung Twig,” referring to a rather indelicate natural process by which the plant is spread.  The Saxons referred to it more graciously as “Different Twig,” recognizing that the plant is indeed something separate from the branches of the tree in which it is found.  In present day scientific terminology, the genus name for mistletoe is Phoradendron, which is Greek for “thief tree.”  This rather accurately describes the true nature of mistletoe, a semiparasitic plant that gets most of its nourishment from the trees on which it grows.

Mistletoe has green leaves that provide some energy, but most of its energy needs are taken from its hosts, usually oaks, elms, and poplars. As a semiparasitic plant, mistletoe grows on the branches or trunk of a tree. It sends out roots that penetrate into the tree and take up nutrients. The plant develops a specialized tissue in the shape of a bell called a haustorium, which grows into the host tree and combines with the living tree. Mistletoe survives by starving the host tree, sometimes to its death. For this reason the plant is known by yet another name—vampire plant.

Mistletoe is actually an evergreen shrub with deep green, spoon-shaped leaves so familiar to modern-day holiday decorators. Its dense, leathery leaves mask the small, pale flowers that appear in compact spikes. Male and female flowers are found on different plants.  In nature the clusters of jointed stems high within the branches of trees merely resemble poorly constructed bird nests to the untrained eye.  Although not actually used by them as nests, birds do play an extremely important role in the life of mistletoe.  The waxy white berries are covered with a sticky substance that is poisonous to man, but is relished by birds.  New mistletoe plants are often established when seeds are spread to other trees in bird droppings or when birds wipe their beaks on branches and leave a seed or two behind.

In Illinois, wild mistletoe can be found in the southern one-sixth of the state extending northward along the Wabash River to Clark County.  Holiday wreaths and festive doorways are other likely sites for its occurrence, but only during the month of December.

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