Scientifically speaking, mistletoe's survival habits are not all that romantic. A parasitic plant, mistletoe grows in ball-like clumps high in the tops of certain hardwood trees. It puts down roots right into the tree bark, drawing water and nutrients from its "host." Appropriately, mistletoe's scientific name, Phoradendron, means "thief of the tree" in Greek.
While host trees gain nothing from the partnership, they are rarely harmed by the mistletoe's existence. Female mistletoe plants produce white berries during late fall and early winter. The white berries are a source of winter food for our feathered friends, who redistribute the seed in their droppings.
Mistletoe berries - though used in the past for medicinal purposes - are very poisonous and should be kept safely away from young children and pets. Although it is usually associated with winter, mistletoe is sensitive to the cold, and prefers warm climates. It thrives where temperatures do not drop below 40 degrees and is found growing from the Atlantic Coast to Texas and Oklahoma, where it's the state floral symbol. Eastern wild mistletoe - just one of 400 species in the mistletoe family - is common along the Ohio River from Marietta to Cincinnati.
In fact, southern Ohio is on the northernmost edge of the mistletoe range. Selective about where it perches, mistletoe in Ohio prefers putting down roots in the tops of American elm, silver maple and black gum trees. Mistletoe may have long ago become linked to the holiday season in part because it?s so noticeable during winter. Living in deciduous trees, mistletoe has nowhere to hide after the host tree has shed its autumn leaves.
Throughout history, cultures around the world have incorporated evergreens such as pine trees, holly and mistletoe into their celebrations of life. For some early civilizations, the mistletoe's unusual living arrangement simply added to the mystique of being a truly "ever green" plant.
Ancient Druids of the British Isles and Gaul (now modern day France) thought mistletoe was sacred because it grew without roots in the ground. They assumed the gods must have planted it and, to show their reverence, harvested mistletoe with tools of gold. The mystique of mistletoe seems nearly universal, and has endured over time. Several legends state that a kiss under the mistletoe, ex-changed by a couple in love, is a promise to marry. In some countries, it is a prediction of happiness and longevity.
Despite its unsavory growth habit, it appears this intriguing evergreen has firmly rooted itself among our favorite holiday customs.