Mistletoe: The Other Evergreen
by Tim Herd of "Nature Newswatch"
The aroma and romance of a live Christmas tree in the living room never fails to bring people close together during the holidays. There is another live evergreen, however, that we also traditionally bring indoors during Yuletide that beats the pines, spruces and firs hands-down for drawing people close to each other. Whether this function is considered by botanists as part of the plant's ecological niche is debatable. But its effect on humans is certainly enchanting, generally endearing, and occasionally enduring. The plant is the tiny sprig of gray-green leaves and white berries suspended over our heads called mistletoe.
Tree Thief. Mistletoe is semi-parasitic. It draws nourishment through root-like hairs it sends through the bark and into the sapwood of a tree. But it also produces some of its own food from sunlight from chlorophyll in its gray-green leaves. Its scientific name, phoradendron, is derived from the Greek phor (thief) and dendron (tree).
Poison berries. Although relished by birds, mistletoe berries are poisonous to people. They contain certain toxic chemicals which cause acute stomach and intestinal irritation with diarrhea and slow pulse. In contrast, other parts of the plant have been used in old home remedies that reportedly raise the blood pressure. Illnesses that require such a prescription, however, should be treated by a doctor, not home remedies. "Safe" increases in blood pressure can be obtained without ingesting mistletoe, by simply putting it to its more traditional use.
Real vs. Plastic. Mistletoe thrives in the south-central and southeastern United States. Purchasing a sprig imported from where it grows abundantly is fine, or you can obtain the plastic alternative, which, although possibly safer for children, may cost you an embrace with someone who knows the difference between phoradendron and polyethylene!
About the author: Naturalist Tim Herd is the founder and Director Emeritus of "The Roving Nature Center", America's first fully mobile environmental education center, and has developed its award-winning environmental education programs. Tim is also the writer, producer and on-camera naturalist host of the 60-second TV broadcast vignette series "Nature Newswatch", originating from all of North America's wild outdoors.