By gosh, by golly, it's time for mistletoe

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 18, 2008

When was the last time you were kissed under the mistletoe?
The Christmas tradition, which actually began more than 3,000 years before Christ with the Druids in Northern England, remains a popular part of any holiday party or gathering.
Mistletoe is a parasitic plant infecting many tree species worldwide. Mistletoe grows mainly in hardwoods and is easily found on oaks and maples throughout Rowan County after fall leaf drop.
Fortunately, the parasitic plant causes little damage to the growth and development of our trees, but in Europe it is a serious problem on conifers. Mistletoe plants often weaken European tree species, allowing easy access to disease and insects.
The plant is able to produce much of its own chlorophyll so its thick, leathery leaves have a healthy green color, but derives most of its nutrients from the xylem or water conducting vessels of its host tree.
Mistletoe has white, round, translucent berries that are spread easily by birds throughout the tree. The seeds are coated with a sticky layer allowing the seeds to readily stick to the bark. The seeds germinate by sending a modified root into the host cambium layer for nutrients.
It takes a year or so for the plant to become established on the host tree. Once the mistletoe roots are established, the evergreen plant grows quickly as a cluster and is easily identified after fall leaf drop.
Historical references note that mistletoe not only influenced our modern day Christmas traditions but was also a mystical plant worshipped by the Druids. The plant’s stem was used to make magic wands and worn as a necklace to protect the home from werewolves. Mistletoe was used to decorate the outside of the home, especially the doorway, to protect the home and leading those inside to beautiful dreams as well as a place to exchange a kiss of peace.
In what is now Germany, early Germanic tribes thought the evergreen contained medicinal properties. Ironically, mistletoe extracts are used today to ease the side effects of chemotherapy. Extracts are used to modulate pain and mood in cancer patients.
Scientists also use extracts from the plant for breast cancer research, blood circulation and regulating heart rates. Scientists are studying mistletoe to try and understand how cells from the same and different biological systems “communicate” with each other.
Those decorating with mistletoe should avoid hanging mistletoe in homes where small children may ingest the fruit. The berries are poisonous, causing extreme convulsions, but the leaves are not poisonous.
Darrell Blackwelder is an agricultural agent in charge of horticulture with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service in Rowan County. Call 704-216-8970 or visit http://www.rowanmaster