Before You Step Under The Mistletoe…

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Photo by R.A. Howard, courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution

by Michele S. Byers, Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation

Mistletoe is one of our most iconic holiday symbols. You see it in pictures, hear about it in familiar carols, and either look for it or avoid it depending on your romantic status! But what do you really know about the plant, the origins of the many customs surrounding its use, and New Jersey’s unique tradition of “mistletoe hunting?”

American Mistletoe – the species Phoradendron leucarpum in our eastern forests – refers to a variety of semi-parasitic plants that grow on a wide range of host trees. Mistletoe plants have evergreen leaves that generate some nutrients through photosynthesis, but most of their nutrition comes from the host tree.

In New Jersey, American mistletoe often grows as clusters of evergreen, twig-like masses, 50 feet high in the tops of black gum or red maple trees. As with many rare plants of this state we’re in, mistletoe is at the northern reach of its range. It’s an imperiled species in our state, with fewer than 20 populations scattered among the remaining mature swamp forests of southern and central New Jersey.

Mistletoe’s milky white berries – poisonous to humans and other mammals – provide a ready food supply for fruit-eating birds. Seeds pass through the birds’ guts primed for germination, and any bird dropping with a lucky mistletoe seed that lands on just the right twig may set the stage for a new plant! In Anglo-Saxon, mistletoe literally means “dung-on-a-twig” …or if you prefer, some other more alliterative alternative.

By now any sensible person might ask: Why do we kiss under this stuff!?

Like many customs, the origins are fuzzy. Mistletoe is the subject of both Greek and Scandinavian myths. In medieval Europe it was a symbol of romance and fertility, which may explain the evolution of the “kissing” tradition. Regardless of its origin, the custom surrounding mistletoe was common across the English-speaking world by the 18th century.

Washington Irving described the kissing custom in his 1820 The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon: “The mistletoe is still hung up 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 bush. When the berries are all plucked the privilege ceases.”

New Jersey’s part in the mistletoe custom is unique. After all, what’s the best way to get a plant growing 50 or more feet in the air? If you said “shotgun” you are either a Piney or a resident of one of the more rural areas of New Jersey. You’re also correct!

New Jersey mistletoe hunters traditionally blasted the plant out of trees, this method being cheaper than a cherry-picker and safer than climbing high branches! In deference to the plants’ endangered status, most of today’s mistletoe hunters are now like bird watchers, identifying mistletoe clusters and snapping pictures from a distance.

This year, stand under the mistletoe with pride! Amaze (and shock) your friends with your new knowledge of mistletoe. And reflect on how this unique plant is woven tightly into the ecosystem, providing food and shelter for birds in exchange for propagation of the species.

Also, it’s good to remember that mistletoe is one of New Jersey’s more than 1,000 native pants, many of which are also imperiled. For more mistletoe information and photos, go to the Natural Resources Conservation Service webpage at http://plants.usda.gov/java/profile?symbol=PHLE14

And if you’d like more information about conserving New Jersey’s precious land and natural resources, please visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.

 


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