Mistletoe: Secrets of the Seasonal Classic
Before you pucker up, learn about mistletoe's double life as an invasive plant.
Stockings hung by the chimney with care are lovely. Strands of twinkling lights strung along the porch rail? I’m feeling the holiday spirit. And a star-topped tree in the living room may be the most recognizable icon of the season. But it isn’t my favorite. Step through a doorway this time of year and you might want to glance up. Mistletoe, that sprig of green, pointed leaves flanked with cheerful white or red berries tacked to the transom is a harbinger of love and togetherness. There is a good chance you’re going to get smooched. Kissing under the mistletoe has a long history, but the plant itself may not live up to the positive press it receives this time of year.
The traditions of mistletoe as a symbol of love dates back to ancient times. The Greeks believed loving couples who kissed under the mistletoe were destined to enjoy matrimonial bliss, the Druids regarded it as a symbol of fertility and Norse legend considers kissing under the mistletoe a celebration of life in honor the Goddess Frigga, whose tears turned the red berries to white and resurrected her son Balder, slain by the wicked Loki.
This sometimes invasive plant, however, may betray its romantic legend.
Phoradendron, the scientific name for American mistletoe, aptly translates from the Greek to mean “thief of trees.” With good reason. Although not technically a parasite, mistletoe can live on its own, but thrives when burying its roots into the branches of trees and leeching nutrients and moisture from its host. European mistletoe (Viscum album) is weaker than its American counterpart, but the aggressive American mistletoe will often kill its unwitting host.
Nicknamed "the vine that ate the South", kudzu - which it's hard to imagine anyone planting now - was first used in the U.S. in 1876 for erosion control and livestock fodder. This Asian native can grow a foot a day, engulfing everything in its path. It's almost impossible to eradicate. The lesson: beware of planting non-natives, unless they're recommended for your region.
Unless you have a hungry panda to feed--make that a lot of hungry pandas--planting bamboo is a terrible idea. This giant grass is almost impossible to control or eradicate, even though it makes a fast-growing privacy screen. If you still want to plant bamboo, look for the clumping varieties; even then, consider keeping them in containers. Fountain bamboo (Fargesia nitida) is a clumping, slow-growing species.
Sometimes used as an evergreen hedge or shrub, privet (Ligustrum) can grow to 30 feet, forming dense thickets and overrunning native plants that provide food and shelter for wildlife. Try viburnums, hollies, boxwoods or Inkberry (Ilex glabra) instead, or ask your local garden center for alternatives.
Wisteria is spectacular, with long ropes of white, violet or purple blooms. But Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis), imported here in 1816, can twine around trees and other plants, strangling them to death. Japanese wisteria (W. floribunda) can also invade, while W. frutescens, or American wisteria, is a less aggressive native. Ask your local extension service agent if there are wisterias you can plant in your area.
Some blackberry species are invasive in parts of the world, including the Pacific Northwest, where they create dense, prickly thickets. These plants spread underground and form roots where their long canes contact the soil. Luckily for berry lovers everywhere, there are cultivated species that are easier to manage. Look for them online or at garden centers.
Don't confuse this pretty wildflower, yellow loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata), with thug-like purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria). Purple loosestrife is an exotic that spreads along marshes and lakes, elbowing out cattails and other wetland plants until ducks, turtles, frogs and other wildlife lose their habitat.
The brilliant fall colors of Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata) earn the vines a place in many landscapes. Sometimes, though, this vigorous perennial, which can grow to 50 feet, doesn't know when to quit, clinging to wood or bricks, climbing into gutters, and creeping under siding. Removing the tenacious vines can damage many surfaces. Try it on a trellis, stone wall or chain link fence, and prune often to manage its size.
Parrots Feather (Myriophyllum aquaticum) is a popular plant for freshwater ponds and aquariums, but it causes severe damage to lakes and streams when it escapes - or if you throw the plants into a body of water to get rid of them. If you're cleaning the plants out of your pond or tank, put them in the sun to dry out and die before disposing of them.
Climbing honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.) perfumes the air with its flowers, which are hummingbird magnets. But it's wildly invasive, overrunning roadsides, forests, gardens, and fields in sun or shade. Look for native honeysuckles or non-invasive species or varieties instead; your extension service office can help. Trumpet honeysuckle (L. sempervirens) is a great alternative.
Like parrots feather, water lettuce (Pistia stratiotes) is often used in garden ponds. The problem is that it reproduces rapidly, and gardeners tend to toss their extra plants into nearby waterways. As the plants continue to grow, they can block boats, clog canals and reduce the oxygen level in the water, causing fish and other marine life to perish. Treat unwanted water lettuce plants like parrots feather, and leave them in the sun to die before discarding them.
We often think of non-natives as invasives, but native plants can overtake an ecosystem, too. Prickly pear cacti (Opuntia) originated in the southwestern U.S. (as well as Mexico and other areas), but this drought-tolerant tough guy now grows into impassable thickets in other parts of the country. Experts vary in whether they call it a problem plant or a valuable one; it provides food for wildlife, but it can also overtake their habitat. Check with your extension service office if you're thinking of growing it, or keep it in containers.
Often used as a groundcover, English ivy (Hedera helix) climbs like crazy, reaching to 50 feet or more. As it grows, it chokes out other plants and even snakes into the canopies of trees, slowly killing them. On the other hand, English ivy can be used to form a living screen, and there are attractive varieties that make good houseplants. This evergreen is invasive, so if you grow it, you'll need to pull, prune, mow or spray with herbicides for control.
Although toxic to humans, mistletoe berries are a valued source of protein for birds and the plants propagate commonly in the wild by way of avian digestion. Birds ingest the berries and then leave their fertile droppings on the branches of trees while perching. The common name for this plant isn’t much better than the scientific name. Mistletoe derives from the Anglo-Saxon “mistle tan,” or “dung twig.” The plant will sprout in a matter of weeks, although it takes several years before flowering begins. Find out how to grow mistletoe here.
The weaker European species does well in backyard cultivation and will live a decade or so. Although common in the wild, planting the more aggressive American mistletoe is not recommended.
We may not plant it and we sure aren’t going to eat it, but hang a sprig in the foyer and it’s suddenly the most popular room in the house. Merry Christmas one and all!
For those embracing the time-honored practice of kissing under the mistletoe, protocol requires a berry be removed for each kiss. When the berries are gone, no more kissing is permitted under its leaves.
Must be time to open presents.