Taking Aim at Mistletoe

Those aren’t berries (and other weird facts) about Mistletoe.

Darlings have smooched under its verdant branches since British servants popularized the notion in the 18th century. Spurning a kiss was bad luck, after all (or so says Norse mythology). But ask Blue Ridge Community College horticulture professor Carolyn Evans about mistletoe, and she’ll tender the truth on this Christmastime classic.

Mistletoe is a leech, says Evans. A hemiparasite, the organism freeloads nutrients and water from trees. Though there are more than 1,300 species of mistletoe, particularly volatile subtypes in the genus Arceuthobium (aka dwarf mistletoe) choke out weak hosts, leaving them for dead.

What’s more, folks who sell it as seasonal garnishing are eerily tightlipped. A nursery owner in Brevard says some tree trimmers peddle mistletoe for under-the-table profit. Another vendor from Upstate South Carolina offers that her father harvests it on private property. Two sources — a Polk County agricultural leader and a Henderson County relative — reveal the way it’s sometimes harvested: shot right out of the tops of trees. (Clearly, decorating for the holidays is more of a scandalous business than previously assumed.)

Wanting to debunk mistletoe’s mystique, Bold Life asked Evans a few questions on yuletide flora.

Where does mistletoe grow?
It’s not fussy. It typically grows on oaks, hickories, pecan trees, and maples. Different species are found across the continental United States. Some have also been found in Central America, Africa, and Europe. I grew up in the eastern part of the state, and it’s more abundant there than in the mountains. Here, you might find it in Tryon or the Foothills, not so much in the higher elevations. It’s a semi-tropical plant that requires direct sunlight.

Horticulturalists call mistletoe a hemiparasite. Can you define this term?
Mistletoe is unique in that it can photosynthesize just as well as it can sap nutrients from its host’s vascular system. A normal parasite would not be able to make its own food. And unlike most plants, mistletoe has no root system. Instead, it has what’s called haustoria. That’s essentially a kind of vascular tissue that allows mistletoe to affix itself to its host. It’s like a fungus.

So it’s bad for the environment?
Not exactly. Birds love the fruit. A lot of people think they’re berries, but they’re called drupes. Birds eat these drupes and then they pass through their digestive system. When it comes out the other end, it’s sticky. So, the bird actually — I’m trying to be as polite as possible here — wipes itself on the tree branch. Now, the seed is stuck on the tree with a bit of fertilizer. If it’s in a good spot, it will germinate. Some people wonder, “How did it get way up there?” Well, that’s how it happens.

Have you heard of tree trimmers selling the stuff for extra cash?
No, I haven’t. But it makes sense — they’re already up there. Mistletoe is hard to find around here. To buy, at least. It’s easier to find when you start heading toward Winston Salem or the Piedmont area.

What is this about shooting mistletoe out of trees?
That’s the way we did it growing up in Rocky Mount. Friends of mine would go hiking in the woods and just shoot it down out of the trees because, well, it’s too high up there. You need to be in a rural area, of course.

And be able to take decent aim …
For certain.

For more information about the horticultural programs at Blue Ridge Community College, see blueridge.edu/horticulture, call Carolyn Evans at 828-694-1840, or e-mail cm_evans@blueridge.edu.

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