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TONY MELTON: The darker side of mistletoe

TONY MELTON: The darker side of mistletoe

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Christmas time a’ coming, Christmas time a’ coming, Christmas time a’ coming. I wish I could sing so be glad this is only in print. With the onset of the Christmas season, a noxious weed, mistletoe, comes into its own, and for whatever reasons it has remained in our culture for centuries.

The modern tradition of using mistletoe around the Christmas holiday season dates back to the Celts of northern Europe. Druids, the holy men of Celtic society, used mistletoe in winter solstice ceremonies. Fearing the cold, short days of winter, the Druids used this green symbol of growth to ensure the return of the sun’s warmth in the spring.

Some cultures associated mistletoe with fertility because of its ability to bear fruit in winter. The Ainu of Japan chopped up mistletoe leaves and sprinkled them on their fields to ensure a good crop. In Austria, a sprig of mistletoe was placed in a couple’s bed to encourage conception.

The act of kissing under the mistletoe on Christmas is of more modern origin. It probably drew upon age-old rituals and traditions involving druidism and fertility rites. In any event, it began as a fad in England and Wales in the 18th century and has become a Christmas tradition in the U.S.

However, I think it ironic that the symbol for kissing at Christmas is a deadly parasitic plant. The berries on mistletoe are toxic, and the sap may irritate the skin of some people. If you decorate your home with store-bought or home-grown mistletoe, hang it up high, out of the reach of children and pets. Also, ironically every time I stand under the mistletoe everyone leaves, maybe they are scared of the mistletoe (ha).

Also, it can be a kiss-of-death for the trees on which it grows. It is an obligate hemi-parasite, which means it gets at least part of what it needs to live and grow from and cannot live without the host tree. It produces haustoria, which serve like roots in soil, grow into the limb of the host tree, and robs nutrients and water. Locally, I see a lot of mistletoe, especially in trees growing in swampy-type conditions and since Florence is built on a series of swamps we have abundant mistletoe. Maybe, it is the trees in the swamp are under stress or with the wet conditions there is abundant moisture for both the tree and mistletoe; whatever, it loves Florence. However, if you don’t love it on your tree you can prune it out but remember to cut the limb at least 2 feet back from the mistletoe to make sure you remove all the haustoria to keep it from rapidly re-growing. Personally, I have found retrieving the mistletoe is more dangerous than the mistletoe itself since I have fallen from ladders, off an old barn, and in love with my wife.

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As many of you know, Tony Melton with Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service has been with us for more than 40 years. Tony has given us countless news articles to laugh, love and learn from with his expertise and knowledge of horticulture.

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