Thank the birds, trees for mistletoe

December 18, 2013 

As a young girl, I used to dream about getting kissed under the mistletoe by Prince Charming himself. I was such a helpless romantic back then, but then again, maybe I still am.

The common name for mistletoe is derived from the ancient belief that mistletoe was propagated from bird droppings. This belief was related to an ancient principle that life could spontaneously generate from dung. It was observed in ancient times that mistletoe would often appear on a branch or twig where birds had left droppings.

“Mistle” is the Anglo-Saxon word for dung and “toe” which came from Anglo Saxon “tan” is the word for twig. So, mistletoe means “dung-on-a-twig.” Kind of kills the romance of it, doesn’t it?

I actually don’t know how true the prior information is, but you have to admit it’s an interesting story. What I do know is mistletoe may be helpful to birds and Christmas decor but not to trees.

Mistletoe is a parasitic perennial plant that can be found on every continent except Antarctica. Even though mistletoe can photosynthesize on its own, it derives all of its water and nutrients from the trees it infects. Because the tree is essential to its survival, mistletoe is only found on living trees. Mistletoe thrives in bright sunlight in the uppermost branches and is typically absent from evergreens because the needles or leaves would shade the mistletoe.

In the South, tiny yellow flowers bloom on mistletoe from fall to winter. A mistletoe plant can be either male or female, but only the female plant has berries. Eating mistletoe berries may be potentially lethal for humans, but birds seem to be immune to any toxicity.

Birds’ immunity to mistletoe’s poisonous qualities is essential to the welfare of the plant. The dispersal and propagation of mistletoe is largely dependent on birds that eat the berries but do not digest the seeds. The seeds are then deposited into the tree tops where a new plant forms.

If you find mistletoe in one of your trees, there are ways you can remove it. You can prune back the infected branch, but make sure you prune back 6 to 12 inches to ensure removal of roots.

If the mistletoe is located on a branch that cannot be pruned, you can cut it flush to the bark then wrap black plastic or cloth around it. This may take a few years, but the mistletoe will usually die.

Using mistletoe as a romantic lure was common in England at least as early as the 1500s. In 1520, William Irving wrote that a young man should pluck a berry each time he kissed a girl beneath the mistletoe. A version of that tradition persists today in Christmas decorations.

Merry Christmas!

For more information on any program area, contact Houston County Extension at 478-987-2028 or drop by our office in the old courthouse, downtown Perry, 801 Main St. Office hours are 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Visit our website at www.caes.uga.edu/extension/houston for more news about your local Extension office.

Dates to remember/news

Houston County 4-H is collecting canned goods for Pack the Pantry. Donations can be dropped off at the extension office. They are also collecting soda cans for the Ronald McDonald House.

Dec. 25-Jan. 1: Extension Office closed for Christmas holidays

Jan. 6-8: Beltwide Cotton Conference New Orleans

Jan. 13: Registration Deadline for 4-H Horse Quiz Bowl

Jan. 16: Georgia Peanut Farm Show, Tifton

Jan. 16: Georgia Aquaculture Association Annual Meeting, Soperton

Jan. 24: Georgia Ag Forecast, Macon

Jan. 25: 4-H Horse Quiz Bowl Competition, Walton County

Feb. 7-9: 4-H Junior/Senior DPA, Rock Eagle

Charlotte Mote is the Houston County agricultural and natural resources agent. Contact her at 478-987-2028 or cmote1@uga.edu.

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