Barry Fugatt: Romantic, Christmas-favorite mistletoe actually a parasite
BY BARRY FUGATT Garden World
Saturday, December 01, 2012
12/01/12 at 5:07 AM
In the second grade in a small country school, I sat next to a rambunctious girl named Sunshine Valentine - her real name. She was tall for her age, had curly red hair and thoroughly intimidated the smaller boys in class. She would pinch, gouge and throw a wicked elbow when the teacher wasn't looking.
Before Christmas break, the teacher brought a sprig of mistletoe to class and explained the tradition of kissing beneath it. The sprig was then passed around the room - when it reached Sunshine, she sprang to her feet, held the mistletoe over my head and planted a wet, sloppy kiss on my cheek. I was mortified!
To this day I avoid standing beneath mistletoe, fearful that Sunshine might spring from the shadows.
A happier memory involves my dad.
He kept an old single-shot .22 rifle in the car trunk. One December day as we bumped along a dusty country road, Dad stopped the car, removed the rifle from the trunk and motioned for me to follow as he made his way across a field toward some trees.
After reaching his objective, Dad stood for a moment looking up at the tree branches. "What's he gonna shoot?" I wondered. My heart beat rapidly with anticipation.
Finally, he knelt on one knee, took careful aim and fired. I vividly recall the sharp crack of the rifle and the sudden movement of something falling from a high branch.
"You got it!" I shouted.
The "it" turned out to be a small clump of mistletoe the bullet dislodged from a branch. Dad picked up his trophy, handed it to me and, wearing a big grin, said, "Give this to Mommy when we get home."
Later, as the old Christmas jingle says, "I saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus underneath the mistletoe last night."
Washington Irving popularized the mistletoe/kissing tradition in 1820 when he wrote: "Mistletoe is hung in farm houses and kitchens at Christmas, and the young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under it, plucking each time a berry from the plant. When the berries are all plucked, the privilege ends."
It's odd that mistletoe ever came to be associated with love and romance. It is, after all a parasite.
Some horticulturists prefer not to label mistletoe as a parasite, pointing out that its green chlorophyll-containing leaves produce its own food through photosynthesis. The point is well-taken.
In my book, however, mistletoe is a parasite. Its root-like extensions (called houstoria) tap into a host tree's branches for the water and minerals it uses for photosynthesis. Mistletoe can't survive without a host plant. That makes it a parasite, or at the very least, a semi-parasite.
Another mistletoe oddity is the naming of this parasite as our official Oklahoma floral emblem in 1893, 14 years before statehood. I have no idea why politicians made such a choice. Perhaps, in a bleak winter environment, they simply found mistletoe's dark green leaves and white berries sufficiently charming to warrant official recognition. Still, it was a bizarre choice.
Occasionally, I get calls from gardeners concerned that mistletoe might be killing their trees. The truth is that most infected trees will die from old age before succumbing to mistletoe.
Enjoy the blessings of the season.
I'm blessed to have survived the second grade sitting next to Sunshine!
Original Print Headline: Plant known for kissing is actually a parasite
Barry Fugatt is director of horticulture at the Tulsa Garden Center & Linnaeus Teaching Garden. He can be reached at 918-746-5125 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mistletoe grows in a silver birch, tapping into the tree's limbs for water and minerals. The charming plant people kiss under at Christmas is considered a parasite. Courtesy