Living Columns & Blogs

Holiday finds in the great outdoors

The colors this fall have been truly spectacular. Even the despised dog fennel growing in our pastures displayed pinks, purples and burgundies I’ve never noticed before. While the colors are fading, there are other cool holiday finds on outdoor strolls. Eastern red cedars and hollies are common holiday evergreens in our area. However, some of the most unique holiday offerings to be on the lookout for are reindeer moss and mistletoe.

Mistletoe is synonymous with the holiday season and smooching sweethearts. While the folklore with mistletoe has early beginnings, it was during the 1500s that the tradition of kissing under mistletoe developed as William Irving wrote that a young man should pluck a berry each time he kisses a girl beneath the mistletoe.

The collective term, “mistletoe,” refers to any of more than 200 species of semi-parasitic shrubs found worldwide. It lives throughout the southern United States, from the Atlantic Coast to California, and on every continent except Antarctica. The leathery green leaves contain chlorophyll that allow it to make its own food. However, the root-like anchors suck water and nutrients from living trees.

Mistletoe grows high in the branches on a number of different trees; including cottonwood, maple, oak and other deciduous hardwoods. American mistletoe has big leaves about the size of your thumb and small white berries. The berries have a sticky, glue-like substance inside with little strings attached to its indigestible seeds. Although eating mistletoe berries may be potentially lethal for humans, birds seem to be immune to their toxic effects. This immunity allows for mistletoe’s dispersal and propagation.

Mistletoe grows slowly at first, sometimes taking years for seeds to be produced. Healthy trees are able to tolerate small mistletoe infestations, but individual branches may be compromised and susceptible to wind or cold injuries. Heavy infestations diminish plant health and can eventually kill weakened trees.

The best way to control the growth and spread of mistletoe is to prune it out of trees. Cut out infected limbs 1 to 2 feet below the infection point. If you don’t remove the “roots” of the mistletoe, regrowth will likely occur. If the mistletoe is located on a main limb or trunk, removing the top of the mistletoe and wrapping the cut with an opaque plastic to prevent sunlight may be beneficial. Don’t forget to cut a piece to kiss your sweetie under!

Another interesting find in the natural world is reindeer moss. Not a plant, or even a moss as the name implies, reindeer moss is in fact a lichen. Lichens, often overlooked in the natural world, are a symbiotic partnership of a fungus and algae. The algae convert sunlight into usable energy through photosynthesis, while the fungi absorb vital nutrients and provide protection. Ultimately, both species benefit and often neither would be able to survive on its own. Lichens come in many different colors, textures, shapes and sizes. They can cover trees, bushes, walkways, brick walls — you name it and a lichen can likely grow on it.

Reindeer moss, a fragile grey-green lichen, grows in puffy mounds along the ground. Interestingly, it is often an indicator of poor soil conditions. In the northern alpine and artic environments, reindeer moss is an important food source for caribou and, you guessed it, reindeer.

Let’s hope Rudolph and his buddies find plenty of patches of reindeer moss on their way south this year. Wishing you and your’s peace this holiday season.

Contact Macon-Bibb County Cooperative Extension agent Karol Kelly at karolk@uga.edu.

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