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Creature Feature – Greenery Edition: Mistletoe – What You Didn’t Know

What Do You Know About Mistletoe?

photo credit: Today.com

Mistletoe can been found as part of the decor that decorates Ocean City’s buildings, archways, and street lights, but did you know that mistletoe causes more than stolen kisses??

Kissing Plant to Some Parasite to Trees

Mistletoe and Christmas go together like hot cocoa and marshmallows. Mistletoe is often associated with winter kisses under its branches, but lovebirds may think twice about this tradition if they knew how it got its name! 

Many Varieties of Mistletoe

Around the world, over 1,300 species of mistletoe can be found. These parasites sequester water and nutrients from host trees and shrubs. The American mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum) can be found in Maryland and Delaware. The American mistletoe’s tree of choice in our region often is red maple. During this time of year, it is easy to spot this parasite gleaming green among the bare branches of trees lining the road. 

How Mistletoe Got Its Name

The word mistletoe is an interesting one. It derives from the Anglo-Saxon “mistel” which means “feces,” and “tang” which means “twig.” Therefore, its name literally translates to poop on a twig! How did a holiday staple get such a moniker? The answer is how it is spread. As you may have guessed, birds consume the tasty mistletoe fruits and subsequently deposit the sticky seeds on unsuspecting trees and shrubs. Birds such as cedar waxwings and mourning doves are known to spread the seeds. Mammals, like deer, have also been known to dine on accessible mistletoe, too. 

How Mistletoe Feeds

Once mistletoe seeds sprout, they will send out root tendrils which pierce the host plant and sap nutrients away. American mistletoe does generate some of its own food through photosynthesis, making it a hemi-parasite. As the mistletoe grows, it will become a rounded mass that is sometimes referred to as a witch’s broom. Interestingly enough, some birds will actually use the mistletoe mass for cover and for nesting!  

Mistletoe and Beliefs Through the Ages

Cultures around the world have embraced mistletoe in their lore. It has been seen as a symbol of fertility, love, and protection. So, how did the tradition of kissing under a poop-dispersed plant come about? The practice likely began in ancient Greece and has been carried over by many generations since. So, feel free to carry on with the merriment but just don’t look up under a mistletoe in the wild! 

Kerry Wixted
Kerry Wixted
Kerry Wixted is the Wildlife Education and Outreach Specialist for Wildlife and Heritage Service in the State of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources. Click here for more about Maryland Department of Natural Resource's Wildlife Education Resources

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