Mistletoe, a Sprig of Myth and Romance, in Our Midst

It's back, after more than a century: The first recorded case of mistletoe in Alexandria since the 1880s, found growing on a honey locust in Old Town. Mistletoe usually grows much higher in trees.
It's back, after more than a century: The first recorded case of mistletoe in Alexandria since the 1880s, found growing on a honey locust in Old Town. Mistletoe usually grows much higher in trees. (The Washington Post)

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By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, December 13, 2007

Do people kiss beneath the mistletoe to keep their minds off the plant itself? I ask this because if you were to get to know this white-berried shrub, love and joy might not be the upwelling emotions.

Many folks know that the berries and leaves are toxic, but less known, I suspect, is that the shrub grows high in the branches of trees. Where does it put its roots? They wander under the skin of its host, supping from the tree's veins. One or two mistletoe bushes in an otherwise healthy tree will deplete it, though not to the point of death. Look hard in the canopy of maples and oaks: That squirrel's nest, if green, may be a mature mistletoe working its macabre magic.

This sinister trait has resonated in cultures through the ages. In Greek mythology, Persephone unlocked the gates to the underworld with a wand of mistletoe. The ancient druids venerated mistletoe for its powers and held that when the plant was growing on oak trees, as opposed to apple, it was particularly sacred. The tradition of kissing beneath it, based loosely on Celtic lore, became popular in the 19th century along with other yuletide rituals.

Colonists left behind the European mistletoe but in Jamestown, at least, found an abundant American version. Although hardy to New Jersey, the American mistletoe is common only in the South and especially in lowland areas where its favored hosts grow. In Tidewater, it can appear with such abundance as to kill its hosts, said Lytton J. Musselman, a botanist at Old Dominion University in Norfolk.

Most clumps of mistletoe are found 20, 30, 40 feet aloft, grown from seeds that have either passed through the guts of birds or been rubbed into the bark by their beaks as they seek to clean off the sticky berry.

Many of the sprigs sold for the holidays hail from the Carolinas and another part of the country rife with mistletoe, central California. The San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys are particularly afflicted, said Ed Perry, a University of California extension agent in Modesto.

The species is drawn to streamside plantings of cottonwoods, ash, locusts and silver maples and has spread to residential neighborhoods in Modesto, he said. Trees that succumb to massive infestations, Perry said, have been neglected in other ways. The mistletoe, which has a vested interest in keeping its host alive, is probably not the main reason for a tree's decline.

In the greater Washington area, the plant is less common and rarely abundant enough to imperil its hosts. It is, I think, a treat to find mistletoe. Essentially a Southern plant, it ranges to southern Maryland counties on both sides of the Chesapeake Bay but is far more abundant on the Eastern Shore. Near the Pocomoke River, mistletoe "has become very common," said Lisa Garrett, owner of the Wild Bird Center of Bowie. She has noticed its spread from oak to maple trees, and it appears far more abundant than a decade ago.

This may be due to climate change, or warmer weather patterns at least. Stanwyn Shetler, a botanist with the Smithsonian Institution, said, "A warming climate is likely to bring mistletoe and many other Southern plants northward."

The keen-eyed heading south to Richmond on Interstate 95 will see it on trees. One of the most astonishing pockets exists in a quarter-mile area in Fairfax County, in the Fair Oaks area. In the established neighborhood of Greenbriar, south of Route 50, the plant is particularly abundant, said Harry Pavulaan, a federal government cartographer and avocational butterfly expert.

Roderick Simmons, a plant ecologist with the City of Alexandria, told me of an exciting discovery of a mature mistletoe in the middle of Old Town, not only in a well-traveled block of Victorian rowhouses but growing just four feet off the ground. I set out to find it, and there it was in the middle of a snow squall, sprouting robustly from a 20-year-old honey locust.

This specimen was special for two reasons. Simmons said this was the first record of mistletoe growing in Alexandria since the 1880s. And because it was so low, one could study it without climbing into a cherry picker. The Old Town mistletoe grows on the eastern side of its host, wrapping two-thirds around the trunk and measuring about 18 inches top to bottom. Its two dozen or so bright green stems erupt from the tree bark like straws, and the tree has callused around the larger ones. Young stems and leaves erupt from the gray bark as the mistletoe continues its spread from the hidden threadlike roots, called haustoria.

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