mistletoe, endangered mistletoe, butterflies

Scientists Say We’ll Soon Kiss Mistletoe Goodbye

December 11, 2008 10:59 AM
by Emily Coakley
Mistletoe, once a central Christmas tradition, is in decline both in use for Christmas kissing and maybe in future availability.

Mistletoe Crop Booming—For Now

In Great Britain last week there were reports that the plant was endangered, but soon after, it was revealed that there is actually a bumper crop of mistletoe this year.

Emine Saner, writing in The Guardian about the seeming discrepancy, explained that the mistletoe itself isn’t threatened, but its habitat might be.

“There is no threat to mistletoe as a species, because it grows wild in taller trees, but we could find that within a couple of decades there won’t be enough to harvest,” mistletoe expert Jonathan Briggs told Saner. The fruit trees the plant prefers to live on are disappearing, and people harvesting mistletoe have jeopardized the plant’s future growth by taking all the female plants and leaving only males.

But future scarcity of mistletoe may not bother many people in England, where the kissing tradition originated. The Evening Courier earlier this week (Dec. 8) reported that 35 percent of people surveyed recently in the British town of Sheffield “have never had a kiss under the mistletoe.” More than half the people surveyed hadn’t had a kiss under the mistletoe in at least two years.

The mistletoe kiss still abounds in movies and on TV, however. An etiquette expert advises those looking to observe the tradition themselves to hang mistletoe “in a very obvious place, ideally low enough so that no one can avoid noticing it,” the Evening Courier said.

Background: Mistletoe’s place in nature

In nature, the plant has different roles. Depending on one’s perspective, mistletoe is either a parasitic pest or useful for birds, butterflies and some mammals (not humans, though—American mistletoe is toxic).

American mistletoe’s scientific name means “thief of the tree,” according to the U.S. Geological Survey. It only grows attached to other trees, and its roots take water and nutrients from its host. Mistletoe starts as a seed that gets to branches by sticking to animals’ fur, on birds’ beaks, or is left in bird waste.

The USGS says mistletoe has an important role in helping bees, which have become increasingly threatened recently. Its pollen is some of the first available in the spring, when bees need it.

“We look upon it as an important starter food source for the bees,” Erik Erikson of the USGS Bee Research Lab said.

And some butterfly species in America “are entirely dependent on mistletoes for their survival,” the USGS says.

Others, though, think mistletoe should be eradicated from part of the landscape.

“But arborists have a decided lack of love for this parasite, stemming from the fact that mistletoe is especially hard to kill without harming the tree in the process,” Science Daily reported in 2002.

Texas A&M University researchers found that using a plant hormone was more effective than other methods of trying to control the parasite’s growth.

In the United States, mistletoe from North and South Carolina, as well as central California, are cut and sold, The Washington Post reported last year. The American and Dwarf mistletoe varieties grow mostly in the south, though American mistletoe also grows well in New Jersey.

Historical Context: Mistletoe’s storied past

Long before Christmas was first celebrated, mistletoe figured prominently in Greek mythology. Also, “The ancient druids venerated mistletoe for its powers,” The Washington Post says, adding that kissing under the mistletoe is “based loosely on Celtic lore.” The tradition originated in England but has spread to other places.

Mistletoe figured prominently in American Christmas celebrations at the end of the 19th century, as one New York Times story from that time illustrates.

According to the article, dated Dec. 8, 1895, mistletoe-gathering was gaining popularity in the south. Any new patch of mistletoe discovered “is watched with a jealous eye.”

“For whereas you may buy all the mistletoe you want in the market, there is none that has the beauty and the meaning of that which you find and capture yourself, and the kisses that it brings have a double value, because you yourself got it,” the article says.

The article also mentions that, when climbing up the host tree to harvest mistletoe isn’t an option, “we have often used the rifle to good effect, a good shot cutting the parent stem that held the bunch of mistletoe to the tree.”

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