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Mistletoe: More than Christmas Kisses

By Laura Pottorff, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension agent, plant pathology and horticulture

Mistletoe suffers an identity crisis.

On the one hand it's a parasite that takes food from another plant, such as ponderosa, lodgepole and limber pines. On the other, its inspires lots of Christmas kisses, merriment and good times.

So, will the real mistletoe please stand!

Both mistletoes are real. Both plants grow on trees and rob them of their food. Dwarf Mistletoe (Arceuthobium) grows in the Colorado foothills and mountains. Leafy mistletoe grows in the American Southwest. Both can be very destructive to host plants.

Dwarf mistletoe can cause branches to swell; it also can reduce the amount of foliage (needles) that will grow on the tree and it promotes the formation of witches brooms, a condition that occurs when side shoots begin to proliferate giving the end of the branch a broom-like appearance.

Dwarf mistletoe takes some management, including the possible removal of infected trees.

Then there's leafy mistletoe (Phoradedrum) which often grows on oak trees in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. It usually shows up around the holidays in small cellophane packages with instructions to hang in a visible spot and let the action begin.

Where did the Christmas folklore surrounding mistletoe begin? The pre-Christian Greeks knew about it and the Celts, early settlers in the British Isles, dubbed it the "Celestial Tree," believing that it was rooted closer than all other plants to the heavens. Druids, Celtic holy men, used mistletoe in rituals; hence the plant took on importance before the beginning of the Christian era.

The mistletoe we use at Christmas also became linked to pagan ceremonies involving the winter solstice. Once Christianity spread, mistletoe became incorporated into Christmas celebrations. Thus began the linkage between mistletoe and Christmas.

In addition to using mistletoe in holiday celebrations, ancient peoples have used it as medicine; at one point mistletoe was even considered a preventive for bubonic plague. Later it was associated with fertility. At present, however, its medicinal value is questioned, although some research continues.

So, know your mistletoes. When you hike, ski or camp in the Rockies next summer, look for a parasitic plant clinging to pine trees; likely it is dwarf mistletoe. For now, however, hang that leafy mistletoe and stay ready: The magic of Christmas may be about to begin!

Photograph courtesy of Judy Sedbrook.

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Date last revised: 01/05/2010