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Mistletoe Marks Joy of Christmas, New Life All Over the World

Mistletoe is a plant that grows almost everywhere. Its emergence during Christmastime heralds a time of joy and togetherness every year. Credit: Pxfuel

Mistletoe is one of those plants that lives almost all over the globe and at this time of year, it gives us something to look forward to — or not — at holiday gatherings.

Here are some things you may not know regarding that piece of essential Christmas greenery, courtesy of Smithsonian Magazine:

Mistletoe is one of more than 1,700 species of a parasitic plant that grows all around the world.

In the West, the evergreen plant, whose botanical name is Phoradendron flavescens, association has carried connotations to fertility and love since time immemorial.

In ancient culture, mistletoe was used for its healing properties — as you might be aware, Greeks used it for disorders of the spleen. But in a twist that most likely is responsible for its status as a kissing magnet even now, Ancient Greeks considered the plant an aphrodisiac.

Associations with longevity, love, regeneration and peace

The ancient Greeks also thought mistletoe was associated with longevity and regeneration.

Celtic Druids were well aware of its reputation, using it to restore fertility to animals and people. They also believed mistletoe provided protection from evil, and that the oaks it was seen growing on were part of this powerful protection as well.

Druids were also known to sent young people carrying mistletoe branches around villages to announce the beginning of the New Year.

Norsemen also took part in these ancient beliefs, allowing men to steal a kiss from any woman caught standing under the mistletoe; refusing the kiss was considered bad luck, according to researchers at Michigan State University’s extension service.

Norsemen believed the mistletoe the esteemed mistletoe played the part that the olive branch does today, as a symbol of peace; when enemies met under the mistletoe, they were obliged to stop fighting — for at least a day anyway!

All these reasons lead many people in the West today to hang a branch of mistletoe over the doorway of one’s home for peace and good luck.

In England, young girls were known to place a mistletoe leaf under their pillows at night so that they would dream about the man they would marry someday.

Remarkable abilities of mistletoe allow it to thrive everywhere

Variously known as Herbe de la Croix, Mystyldene and Lignum Crucis, the hardy mistletoe can grow up to 2-5 feet in diameter.

Marcos A. Caraballo-Ortiz, a research associate in botany at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, who studies the mistletoes of the Caribbean, explains “Mistletoe is actually an evergreen plant,” noting that this aspect, along with its ability  to keep its white fruits during the Wintertime, has led to it becoming seen as a symbol of fertility and regeneration throughout the millennia.

Mistletoes are parasites– or at least hemiparasites, meaning those plants that derive at least some of their nutrients from another living plant. Mistletoe often attaches to the branches of a woody tree or shrub and takes the water and nutrients it needs from them, in some instances killing them over time.

But that is not always the case, Caraballo-Ortiz explains, noting “They can do some photosynthesis” when they are young, after they first attach to the tree they will live on. “I have seen trees that have branches with so many mistletoes on them, the branch can die,” the scientist says, adding “But some of them you don’t notice on the host at all.”

Almost unique among plants, he goes on to state, mistletoe never even touches the soil at all during its life cycle. “They don’t touch the ground,” Caraballo-Ortiz said, adding that mistletoe seeds drop onto a potential host plant, hanging on and germinating right there on the spot.

“Their fruit is covered with a sticky substance called viscin,” the botanist says, adding “It’s like a fiber that allows the seed to attach on the branches of trees.” The seed then produces a hypocotyl, or stem, that grows from it, starting the base of a new mistletoe plant. It then produces a type of root called a haustorium, which burrows into the host branch, siphoning water and other nutrients from it.

Pink Mistletoe growing in the American West. Credit: United States Department of Agriculture

Exploding seeds spread mistletoe far and wide

So how do mistletoes manage to spread as far as they do? Incredibly, the seeds of these bizarre plants build up so much water pressure within their skins that they explode – propelling them at a high rate of speeds, wherever the wind will take them. It’s an amazing adaptation that assures that they will not overpopulate any one area, killing off all the possible host trees and bushes.

“It’s really cool — they can fly really long distances,” says Caraballo-Ortiz,who adds that the seeds can travel at 30 miles per hour and land 20 feet away from the parent plant.

Birds also do their part, as they do with so many other plants, assuring that their seeds spread far and wide, widening the range of the plants.

“Birds really like them, because they have special sugars and different colors and textures,” Caraballo-Ortiz said of the beautiful mistletoe fruits, which look so lush this time of year. “And it often is the only fruit available in winter in many cases.”

When the birds leave their waste as they perch in trees, the seeds within, coated with the sticky substance viscin germinate right where they land.

Some mistletoes are carnivorous – in a way

When birds do their thing, leaving seeds of one mistletoe plant atop another plant of the same kind, the new plant that grows there will cannibalize the host mistletoe just like they do other hosts.  Some species have even adapted to this practice, Caraballo-Ortiz says.“The birds have been constantly throwing seeds over other mistletoes, so they’ve taken advantage of that.”

So yes, sometimes in the wild, you can find a mistletoe hanging off a mistletoe growing on a tree. This practice makes them “hyperparasites,” forming a chain of parasitic organisms.

While it is more often Western Europeans and Americans who have to have that piece of mistletoe on a lintel somewhere during the holidays, mistletoes grow almost all over the world.

Caraballo-Ortiz says there are over a thousand known mistletoe species thiving all over the globe. “You can find them almost everywhere, except in extreme environments,” he states; however, some of them have adapted to live in Siberia or northern Canada.

These mistletoe species have adapted specially as a way to thrive in the cold, while other species are adapted to survive in extremely arid conditions. “As long as they have a host, they can find a way,” Caraballo-Ortiz says.

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