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Kiss me under the poisonous parasite: Seven fun facts about mistletoe

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Janice Peterson
December 30, 2013

Of all the plants used for holiday decorations mistletoe is perhaps the strangest. First of all, it's a parasite! (Well, demi-parasite to be exact). It grows specialized roots that penetrate a tree host to steal water and nutrients. Mistletoe also has chlorophyll so it can make its own food. Mistletoe is not an immediate threat to its host, and trees can live for decades with a mistletoe infection. It's easiest to see the mistletoe growth in winter after the tree has dropped its leaves.

Here are some more fun facts about mistletoe:

1. The best guess is that mistletoe means “dung branch”.

2. There are hundreds of species world-wide but only two native to the US: American mistletoe (with leathery leaves and small white berries just perfect for holiday decorations) and Eastern dwarf mistletoe.

3. American mistletoe is mainly transmitted by birds eating the berries and then defecating into treetops. Mistletoe is toxic to humans but not to birds.

4. Only one type grows in Wisconsin - Eastern dwarf mistletoe. It is very small (a measly couple of centimeters tall) and only affects conifers, often causing witches brooms.

5. Mistletoe was the official state flower of Oklahoma until 2004. It was replaced with a non-native tea rose.

6. Luther Burbank deliberately introduced European mistletoe to California in hopes of starting a mistletoe industry.

7. Some mistletoe species in Chile invade cactus.

Why do people kiss under a sprig of mistletoe? Mistletoe traditions stem from ancient pagan rites, but mostly I think people have to kiss somewhere! Do I decorate with mistletoe? Oh, I'll never kiss and tell.



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