So romantic is an embraced kiss underneath the mistletoe, holiday music playing in the background, and the tree alight. But did you know that the mistletoe we kiss our sweethearts under is a ruthlessly parasitic plant? It attaches to a host tree, sending roots into its victim’s vascular tissue. Like a vampire, it sucks out the water and nutrients from its hosts.
Dwarf mistletoe, with multiple species of the genus: Arceuthobium, as well as common mistletoe (Viscum album) of the genus: Viscum are of the family: Santalaceae. Ho Ho Ho – this is an appropriate family name for a plant used as a holiday decoration!
The Plant Vampire
Mistletoe is an evergreen plant, that if fed well by its host, can grow as big as five feet long and fifty pounds! Its sticky berries attach to animals, to hitch a ride in the forest. When ready, the berries can explode at a speed of 60 miles per hour to scatter seeds. A seed landing on a host tree will then send roots into its bark to collect water and nutrients. Dwarf mistletoe is picky about where it lives, only latching onto pine and juniper trees.
But Mistletoe isn’t all that Bad
This parasitic plant can be helpful to a forest, weeding out the weaker trees. It also targets the large, older trees, to thin the canopy and offer more light below. However, some commercial foresters do not like the plant because it reduces productivity of their crops. Further, infected trees have a shorter lifespan with points of entry for decay fungi, and the death of older trees can affect the shade tolerant species living below. Optimally, there is a balance where it is healthy for a forest to have some dwarf mistletoe, but not too much, and managed thinning can be beneficial.
The Lifecycle – What Comes Around Goes Around
While mistletoe has moved in and made its home in the trees, the local animals thrive by living within this same plant. Many wildlife animals rely on mistletoe for their food and home. Birds, such as wrens, sparrows, thrushes, chickadees, nuthatches, doves, jays, owls, and hawks move on in. Even the squirrels like to nest in the plant as well as the cavities formed from the rotting mistletoe infected trees. Further, a nest in this plant can provide protection against the large predatory birds.
And it Tastes Great to…
While the berries are quite poisonous to humans, the animals of the forest, and especially the birds, find it a delicious and nutritious food. Such birds include flycatchers, bluebirds, grouse, mourning doves, grosbeaks, robins, and pigeons. And to continue the relationship, their excrement after eating the berries offers mutually benefits by helping the plant to spread its seeds. Plus, certain types of butterflies lay their eggs on mistletoe and rely on the leaves and nectar. Bees also use mistletoe as an important source of nectar. Even mammals, including deer, elk, cattle, squirrels, and porcupines eat the fruit of the mistletoe.
Proof of the Benefits of Mistletoe in the Forest
David Watson, an Australian ecologist, removed 41 tons of mistletoe from a park to result in a loss of one third of bird species, especially the insect eating birds. Insects, benefiting from the soil rich in nutrients from the fallen mistletoe leaves and berries, were less abundant when there wasn’t enough mistletoe (Ben-Achour, 2012).
There is an ecosystem balance, were wildlife relies on just the right amount of mistletoe.
- Di Silvestro, R., National Wildlife Federation (2013). Don’t kiss off mistletoe. Retrieved in December, 2018. Retrieved from: The National Wildlife Federation Blog
- Hoffman, J., Forest Health Protection and State Forestry Organization. (2004). Dwarf mistletoe management. Retrieved in March, 2017. Retrieved from: ACHS Course Material.
- National Public Radio, Sabri Ben-Achour (2012). Birds hang around mistletoe for more than just a kiss. Retrieved in December, 2018. Retrieved from: NPR Blog
- Puckett, C., & Esque, T. (2016). Not just for kissing: Mistletoe and birds, bees, and other beasts. (United States Geological Survey). Retrieved in March, 2017. Retrieved from: U.S. Geological Survey Blog
Post by: Kathy Sadowski