I first noticed American Mistletoe one December many years ago while I was jogging. It was a “ball” of fleshy-looking green leaves about one foot in diameter that was hanging from a large branch of a Northern Red Oak.
Perhaps because I had always followed the tradition of hanging a sprig of fake mistletoe in my house at Christmastime in order to be kissed underneath it, I immediately recognized the plant. As an incurable romantic, I was delighted to find “the real thing” practically in my own backyard!
There are many species of mistletoe that are native to the United States, but only American Mistletoe, Phoradendron serotinum, grows in Virginia. This is, indeed, the common mistletoe that is hung during the Christmas holidays.
Many people know that the white mistletoe berries are poisonous to humans and thus should not be hung in houses with small children. However, numerous species of birds, such as Cedar Waxwings and Eastern Bluebirds, not only can eat these berries, but relish them. These birds then help to spread mistletoe seeds.
Mistletoe berries each contain one seed covered by a very sticky substance. A bird eating these berries can end up with this sticky “goo” on its beak. When it wipes its beak on a branch to get the goo off, a seed may get wiped off as well, thus helping mistletoe to grow in a new location. Birds can also spread seeds via their droppings.
American Mistletoe usually grows near the tops of deciduous trees (those that lose their leaves in autumn) because it needs sunshine. The tiny yellow blooms appear in summer, but these are difficult to observe from the ground. However, by late fall you can observe the ¼-inch white fruits that can be seen with the aid of binoculars or a spotting scope.
American Mistletoe can be found in books about shrubs because it is a low-growing, several-stemmed woody plant. Although the stems are green like the leaves, they do contain the complex tissue known as the “woody element” of a plant stem which conducts water and dissolved minerals.
It is the only shrub in the colder parts of North America that is parasitic on broad-leaved trees (trees that have wide leaves instead of the needles that cone-bearing trees have).
Although you may not want to hang genuine American Mistletoe with its poisonous fruits inside your house this Christmas, you can take advantage of its location if you notice some growing in a tree. You can carry the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe one step further by using the real thing, high up on a branch, as an excuse to get a kiss in the great outdoors!
Happy holidays to everyone!
Naturalist Marlene A. Condon is the author/photographer of The Nature-friendly Garden: Creating a Backyard Haven for Plants, Wildlife, and People (Stackpole Books; information at www.marlenecondon.com). If you have a question about plants or animals, or gardening in a nature-friendly manner, please send it to [email protected]