Exploring the story of mistletoe

Mistletoe provides food and nesting sites for birds such as mockingbirds.

Mistletoe has a long and varied history, depending on what century you want to investigate.

There are references to European and Greek folklore, protection against poisons and witches, healing powers for epilepsy and ulcers, and magical properties that foretell bad omens. If you're a Harry Potter fan, then you know mistletoe is also infested with nargles.

If you look for an explanation in mythology, you'll find that the Norse goddess Frigga was overprotective of her son, Baldur, and made all things promise not to harm him.

However, she forgot about mistletoe. Loki, the trickster, mortally wounded Baldur with a dart made from mistletoe. But Frigga saved her son with her tears that became the white berries of mistletoe.

She declared mistletoe a symbol of peace and love and those that passed beneath it during Christmas office parties had to kiss.

Birds often eat the seed and spread them through waste where the seeds germinate on the branch of a host tree. "Mistel" refers to "dung" and "tan" means "twig." Thus, the translation: dung-on-a-stick.

However, the seed is sometimes squeezed from the fruit when birds eat them. The seeds are coated with a tacky substance that allows it to stick to branches and germinate.

Mistletoe also was thought to represent life and fertility.

The reference to fertility was used in Greek marriage ceremonies to wish the lucky couple, well, fertility. Eventually, it was used as trimming during the holiday season and any girl kissed underneath the mistletoe could expect lasting romance.

In Scandinavian folklore, young men had to pluck a berry from the mistletoe with each kiss from a young woman until it was bare.

If you are in need of a sprig of mistletoe's kissing power, look no further than the Lowcountry. It typically can be found in the upper branches of a variety of trees, such as honey locust, pecan and certain oaks.

Occasionally, it will grow within reach of pole pruners. You'll likely have to climb the tree in order to clip it. In some cases, folks have been known to shoot it out of the tree with a shotgun.

Mistletoe is a parasitic plant. Technically, it's a hemi-parasite that only gets water and nutrients from its host. It "roots" into a host branch with structures called sinkers.

Since it is photosynthetic, however, it produces its own food. It's easy to spot this time of year because leaves are falling, revealing round, bushy green bundles near the top of the canopy.

Dwarf mistletoe occurs out West and can seriously damage its host.

Leafy mistletoe grows in the Lowcountry. It doesn't typically bother the host plant unless they become so numerous that the tree becomes predisposed to other damages, such as drought, heat or disease.

It is a poisonous plant that causes skin irritation or acute stomach pain and diarrhea if consumed. The severity of the reaction depends on the type of mistletoe, so it's best to avoid keeping it where pets or children can have access to it.

There are mistletoe extract products that are sold as a homeopathic medicine to fight cancer, but research has shown very little proof to support these claims.

Some ecologists have identified mistletoe as a keystone species, a plant species that would have a profound impact on the habitat's biodiversity if it was removed. Since its berries attract a variety of birds, especially mockingbirds, they have a positive influence on plant and animal diversity, which is critical to an ecosystem's well-balanced function.

However, control of mistletoe may be necessary if a heavy infestation threatens the health of the host.

Mistletoe will grow back unless the host's branch is pruned off. Herbicides, such as Florel, can be applied under certain circumstances by a trained professional.

Tony Bertauski is a horticulture instructor at Trident Technical College. To give feedback, email him at tony.bertauski@tridenttech.edu.