THE 8 PLANTS OF CHRISTMAS: MISTLETOE

Dec 13, 2015: I know I started out with 12 but, on reconsideration, I really think there's truly only eight.

Here in Oregon we have 2 types of mistletoe, a hemiparasitic (think semi-parasitic) evergreen one and a Evergreen mistletoeEvergreen mistletoeparasitic one, dwarf mistletoe. The evergreen mistletoe is what we use at Christmas time. In the Pacific Northwest, it's typically found growing on Oregon white oaks (Quercus garryana) and is spread by birds eating the white berries and then depositing their dung on other branches. Oddly enough, the name mistletoe is derived from the Anglo-saxon words for "dung stick". Standing under the dung stick just doesn't have the same je ne sais quoi though.

Our evergreen mistletoe (Phoradendron villosum) is called a hemiparasite because it taps into its host trees to obtain water. It manufactures its own food through photosynthesis (that's why its green) but Dwarf mistletoeDwarf mistletoethrough root-like structures called haustorium they penetrate into the branch and tap into the plant tissue to extract water and nutrients. The relationship for the host tree is not a beneficial one. It saps the tree of resources but does not kill it. Our native full parasite, the western dwarf mistletoe derives everything -food, water, nutrients- from the host plant. Dwarf mistletoe is not green (it's a sickly yellow-orange) and causes serious stunting and mortality to the trees it infects, which are Ponderosa pine, Douglas fir and western hemlock, in our area.

But enough of the biology stuff, you're saying, let's get to the symbolism. You guessed it. The Celts, Romans, Greeks, Christians and even the Norse all had symbolic and ceremonial uses for mistletoe. For the Norse Vikings, trees with mistletoe in them acted as ceasefire zones, a pillage free place of peace where truces could be discussed. It wasn't a far stretch then for warring couples to kiss and makeup underneath it and now to today where anyone, warring or not, can get a smack under the Kissing Bough.

Next Christmas party your newfound mastery of mistletoe trivia will make you a big hit. You'll bound to score quick standing under the dung stick. Trust me.

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