Mistletoe – A Plant for the Holidays

When the oak leaves drop on the mountain things are revealed that have been hidden much of the year. One of these is our native mistletoe that nestles in the oak trees all over Mt. Laguna. Over 1300 species of mistletoe exist worldwide.The two varieties of mistletoe you will find near our cabins are the Oak Mistletoe and the Dwarf Mistletoe.

The Oak Mistletoe is the mistletoe we associate with Christmas decorations and kissing under the mistletoe. The leaves are oval, green and leathery and the berries are white. There are some massive stands of Oak Mistletoe in the Boiling Springs tract on the large oaks near cabins 770 and 771.

Mistletoe 1.1The Dwarf Mistletoe is also found on the mountain, but this you will see on our native Jeffrey Pine trees. It looks quite different from the Oak Mistletoe, having scaly yellow leaves on stems like skinny fingers. It looks almost like coral growing on the trunk of the pine tree.

Mistletoe is hemi-parasitic, meaning it isn’t a complete parasite. It uses the host plant for water and many nutrients, but makes its own chlorophyll through photosynthesis. Once considered a pest, mistletoe is now thought to be a “keystone species” with important influence on the ecological community it inhabits. A large number of animals, including native birds and butterflies, depend on the mistletoe for food. In return, they distribute the seeds and pollinate the flowers, continuing the cycle of life. There is some evidence that bees depend on the mistletoe flowers for food in early spring. Many birds nest in mistletoe, including Chickadees and Nuthatches.

According to legend, mistletoe was sacred to the Druids. It was cut at the beginning of the year and provided protection from evil. The oak trees on which the mistletoe grew were treated with great respect as mistletoe was considered a healing plant. In Norse mythology, an arrow made of mistletoe killed Baldur, the god of peace. The Christmas use of mistletoe may trace back to Druidic or Scandinavian legend, but it was not really part of British or American tradition until late in the 18th century.

Leaves and young twigs have been used medicinally, but can also be toxic. The berries are poisonous. Please don’t leave it where children can help themselves to the pretty berries!

Enjoy your mistletoe in a doorway this holiday season or appreciate it in its native habitat. If you look closely, perhaps you’ll spot a nest left over from last spring.

Joanne Odenthal, Cabin 505