Mistletoe

(This column was first published in the December 20, 1999 Buffalo News.)

                                        Up close, she smiles,
                                            blushes...but I'm not prepared for
                                            the mistletoe!

    This haiku-like poem by Tom Brinck reminds us of the role assigned to mistletoe at this holiday season. Couples are allowed -- required? -- to kiss when they meet under a branch of mistletoe purposely hung over a doorway.

    This tradition of decking homes with mistletoe comes down to us by a rather tortuous route from the ancient Druids. The Roman scholar Pliny -- best remembered today for his death at the Vesuvius eruption in 79 A.D. -- had written about the veneration paid to mistletoe by those Gallic tribes of northwest Europe. According to him groves of oak were the Druids' special retreats and whatever grew on those trees was thought to be a gift from heaven. In one of those ceremonies attractive to believers in witchcraft, a priest wearing a white robe would climb one of the oaks to cut the mistletoe from the branches with a golden knife while below him two white bulls were being sacrificed. Assigned the name All-Heal, the mistletoe was then hung in their doorways to invoke kindly forest spirits and to prevent the entry of evil goblins.

    By the early 19th century these traditions had been modified into the Christmas custom of the kissing bough that has come down to us today. Not before overcoming some road blocks in this country, however. Puritan America was not enthusiastic about a custom observed in the Anglican church. For example, Nathaniel Hawthorne, on a visit to England in 1855, was shocked by what he considered this licentious practice. But by the turn of the century it had become a common holiday tradition here as well and especially popular among fathers of marriageable daughters.

    I have never seen mistletoe growing in this region, but it is a common winter sight in the otherwise bare deciduous trees of the South. It is by no means confined to oak trees: black walnut, red maple, and sixty other tree species have been recorded serving as hosts. The plant appears as a one to three foot ball of vine-like tendrils, sparsely evergreen leaved, bearing small white berries and hanging from a branch or two of its host tree. Each year at this time my father-in-law, an excellent marksman (with three daughters), would collect a mistletoe for his family by shooting it off the limbs from which it was suspended.

    Our American mistletoe does not even belong to the same genus as the European plant, but both are partial parasites. They derive water and minerals from the trees in which they reside but the chlorophyll in their leaves is powered by sunlight to manufacture their own sugars. Disbursal is achieved by birds that eat the berries but wipe the unpalatable and sticky seeds off their beaks or feet onto the limbs of other trees. The English mistle thrush is named for this practice. In their new setting the seeds quickly germinate and tap into their host.

    Unlike our relatively benign eastern mistletoe, the dwarf mistletoes mostly confined to the western United States contain no chlorophyll. Those species destroy more of the conifers on which they are parasitic, in particular the valuable lumber trees Douglas fir and lodgepole pine, than any tree disease. Their viscid seeds are fired like mortar shells up to 60 feet from the parent plant.

    If you do display mistletoe, beware. All parts of this plant are poisonous, the berries most toxic. Symptoms can include blurred vision, nausea or vomiting, diarrhea, irregular heartbeat, hallucinations and even convulsions. Obviously this plant should be kept out of the reach of children.

    I wish all readers pleasant -- but careful -- holidays.-- Gerry Rising