Deck the halls with wild, wonderful mistletoe

 

West Virginia Department of Agriculture

Plant Industries Division

Market Bulletin Article

December 2008 Issue

 

Norman L. Dart

Agricultural Plant Pathologist

 

 

Try decking your halls with mistletoe this holiday season. This evergreen plant has a rich history as a ceremonial, celebratory and medicinal amulet. With its relative abundance in the State, collecting this treasure from your backyard can provide a memorable holiday adventure for your family.

 
Mistletoe is a semiparasitic plant that grows on the branches and trunks of deciduous trees. The plant produces carbohydrates on its own using the process of photosynthesis but obtains water and nutrients through modified roots that penetrate the bark of its host. Mistletoe usually causes little to no harm to its host tree. Severely infested trees may suffer reduced growth rate but rarely will mistletoe cause premature health decline. In West Virginia, oak Mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum) is our native species. It is especially abundant at lower elevations along the Kanawha, Ohio, and Potomac rivers. Contrary to its common name, oak Mistletoe is found on many tree species including (but not limited to) maples, sycamore, beech, ash, elm and oaks. In autumn after host trees loose their leaves mistletoe can easily be seen as a conspicuous dense shrub-like evergreen usually growing on the mid-to-upper branches of larger trees.

 

References to mistletoe date back to when Great Britain was occupied by Rome (43-410 A.D.). Roman writings describe Celtic Druids cutting mistletoe from oak trees with golden knives and laying white cloth under trees so the mistletoe would not touch the ground as it fell. The Druids considered the plant sacred and used it as a symbol of fertility in ceremonies and hung it over windows to fight off evil. Mistletoe is also found in the mythology of the Scandinavian Norseman (200-500 A.D.). In one Norse myth a spear carved from mistletoe was used to kill Baldur, the son of the goddess Frigga. When Baldur was eventually brought back to life, Frigga required couples passing under mistletoe to kiss in order to celebrate Baldur’s resurrection. This tale is where the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe is thought to have originated. For many years some churches in England banned the use of mistletoe because of its ties to pagan tradition and mythology. By the 18th century the tradition of hanging mistletoe during holiday festivals was again acceptable and in full swing. The tradition during this period was for men to steal kisses from women under the hanging ornament, after each kiss a berry would be picked and discarded until the berries were gone from the bundle of mistletoe. Mistletoe was not only important in European cultures; the North American Indians had many uses for the plant, including using it as a remedy for tooth aches and to treat wounds.

Historically, because mistletoe has an affinity for growing high in the crowns of trees the preferred method for harvesting it in the southern United States was to shoot it down from branches using a shotgun. This is not the method we recommend and is not safe or legal in some instances along rivers in populous regions of West Virginia where mistletoe thrives. The shotgun method can also damage mistletoe which tends to be fragile and needs to be handled with care if it is to be used as premium greenery. Safer alternatives include using a ladder or a pruning pole. Pruning poles can be bought at a local hardware store or you can make your own 10-20’ pole with 1” strips of lumber (furring strips) by overlapping the strips about 4” and joining them with 1/4” bolts. At the end of your homemade pole secure a hook (a bent nail works fine) and use the hook to break sprigs (small branches and shoots) of mistletoe from hard to reach branches. Your pole does not need pruning sheers at the end since mistletoe stems are fragile and break with ease. When using a ladder make sure to have an assistant steady the ladder, once you get within reach use pruning shears or pick directly with your hands. 

It is important to get permission before harvesting mistletoe from private lands and to check with your local forest or natural resource office before harvesting it from public lands. Many private landowners will be glad to have mistletoe removed from their trees since it is a parasite. If you don’t have access to mistletoe, look for vendors selling it at local farmers markets and roadside stands. At least two venders plan on selling mistletoe at the Capital Market in downtown Charleston during the month of December. The commercial mistletoe market is very informal in West Virginia. Most venders obtain their supplies from landowners who harvest it from their property. These wholesalers approach venders directly at local farmers markets who buy several pounds to sell along with Christmas trees and wreathes.

Once you obtain your mistletoe it is time to decorate. Hang bunches over doorways or add sprigs to table centerpieces, garlands and wreaths. You can also use mistletoe to decorate holiday cards or wrapped presents. Don’t let these suggestions limit your creativity. Enjoy mistletoe this holiday season but make sure to practice safety and follow federal, state and local laws regulating the harvest of alternative forest products. It should also be noted that mistletoe is poisonous if eaten and should be kept out of reach of children and pets.

 

Featured mistletoe links
 
 
Harvesting mistletoe

 
Decorating with mistletoe
 
Marketing mistletoe
 

State Forest Contacts

WV Division of forestry: http://www.wvforestry.com/

WV Department of Natural Resources: http://www.wvdnr.gov/

Monongahela National Forest: http://www.fs.fed.us/r9/mnf/

 

 
 
 

   

 

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