Homes around Ohio and across the globe are being trimmed for the holidays with garlands of evergreen and boughs of holly. And hanging above many doorways will be a requisite ball of mistletoe.
For many people who buy their mistletoe at local gardening or grocery stores, how and where the plant grows is as much of a mystery as how it got the reputation for instigating romantic encounters.
Dark green leathery leaves with small clusters of white berries give this evergreen plant its holiday appeal. Scientifically speaking, however, mistletoes 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, mistletoes scientific name, Phoradendron, means "thief of the tree" in Greek. While host trees gain nothing from the partnership, they are rarely harmed by the mistletoes 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, usually associated with a cold-weather time of year, is really a lover of 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).
Our recent mild winters have been good for Ohios mistletoe, which is very sensitive to the cold, said Hal Kneen, the agriculture and natural resources extension agent for Meigs County.
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.
Kneen said he does not encourage the harvest of this yuletide symbol because it grows at a dangerous height of 20-40 feet from the ground. Instead, he offers this much safer solution: Just bring your honey down for a little trip and stand under a tree with mistletoe.
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 mistletoes 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 in reverence harvested mistletoe with tools of gold.
Several legends state that a kiss under the mistletoe, exchanged by a couple in love, is a promise to marry. In some countries, it is a prediction of happiness and longevity.
Mistletoe berries though used in the past for medicinal purposes are very poisonous and should be kept safely away from young children and pets.
Whether filling your home with mistletoe as a festive holiday decoration or for its romantic symbolism, it appears this intriguing evergreen has firmly rooted itself among our many holiday customs.