Discover Nature: The Holiday 'Thief'

Dec 6, 2020

You might steal a kiss under its green branches around the holidays, but in nature, mistletoe is known as a thief.

This parasitic plant attaches to and steals nutrients from trees, but it's not a complete parasite as its leaves can convert sunshine into energy to make its own food. And it's not a complete bum as its flowers, fruits, and leaves provide many benefits.

The oak mistletoe, our most common, was once believed to extinguish fire. This comes from an earlier belief that a flash of lightning brought mistletoe to trees.

The white berries which you see around Christmas are toxic to humans and some animals but provide food for mammals like deer, elk, squirrels, and chipmunks. Chickadees, bluebirds, robins, and other birds eat the berries and spread the sticky seeds in their droppings or by wiping them off on branches. Seeds will tap into tree branches and trunks and create a pipeline drawing out water and minerals as the plant grows.

Mistletoe grows naturally in southern Missouri in clumps high up on trees. It's rare, but it can also be found growing in river valleys on sycamore, elm, and river birch in tangled balls as much as five feet across. House wrens, chickadees, mourning doves, and other birds build nests in them and squirrels will set up house there, too.

More information about mistletoe in Missouri can be found online at mdc.mo.gov