Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

For Peat’s Sake: Mistletoe Magic

By Marla J. Stelk, Policy Analyst, ASWM

Depending on your perspective or circumstances, mistletoe at this time of year may be something you search for or avoid at all costs. We always had a fake sprig of it hoisted marlablog122314-1up in our house during the holidays when I was growing up which caused anxiety and/or excitement for me depending on whom was invited over to our family’s annual holiday open house party. But I never really thought much of it otherwise – it was just another holiday decoration.

But when I realized it was my turn to write the weekly blog for the Association of State Wetland Managers (ASWM) and that it would be published the week of Christmas, I decided that I needed to find out more about this elusive and intriguing plant. Bottom line – it’s not just for smooching!

Did you know that mistletoe provides essential food, cover and nesting sites for a multitude of critters? The American mistletoe we hang for hopeful encounters can be found from New Jersey to Florida and west through Texas and is only one of 1,300 species of mistletoe worldwide. Some of them, such as the Hawaiian Mistletoe (Korthalsella latissimi) grow in wetlands. The Dwarf Mistletoe, found from central Canada and southeastern Alaska to Honduras and Hispaniola is also listed as a wetland plant by the State of Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources.

marlablog122314-2Mistletoes can be found in the branches of trees and shrubs. Some varieties are known as “hemi-parasites” which means that although they do help themselves to their host tree’s nutrients and minerals, they also grow the green leaves necessary for creating their own food through photosynthesis. So you could consider them partial slackers – they prefer to steal their food and water from their generous tree hosts but in a pinch they’ll do the work to provide for themselves. However, the Dwarf Mistletoe is categorized as a “complete parasite” (aka “total slacker”) because it does not even photosynthesize so it also steals sugar from its host – not very neighborly at all.

marlablog122314-3Birds are an important part of the mistletoe’s ecosystem and a significant variety of them rely on mistletoe for food (they eat the berries) and nesting. In fact, the word “mistletoe” was derived from the Anglo-Saxon word “mistel” which means “dung” and the word “tan” which means “twig” because it was commonly found in places where birds had left their droppings. Birds and mistletoe have a symbiotic relationship in that the mistletoe provides food and shelter for the birds while the birds help to disperse the mistletoe seeds. One study found that 43% of spotted owl nests were associated with “witches brooms” – the thick masses of branching and misshapen stems that grow out from mistletoe plants. And a study done in Oregon found that 64% of all Cooper’s hawk nests in the northeastern part of the state were also found in mistletoe.

marlablog122314-4Many other species enjoy a winter’s feast of mistletoe –both the berries and the leaves – including elk, cattle, deer, squirrels, chipmunks, porcupines and butterflies. There are actually three kinds of butterflies in the United States that depend entirely on mistletoe for survival – the great purple hairstreak (now THAT is a great name, eh?), the thicket hairstreak and the Johnson’s hairstreak. The great purple hairstreak lays its eggs on the mistletoe, which provides food for the resultant caterpillars. And they’re not too unlike their human cousins – these butterflies also use mistletoe for courtship rituals. All three butterfly species drink the nectar from the mistletoe flowers, which is also an important food source for bees. But human lovers beware – mistletoe is toxic to people (and possibly your pets) so please do not try to eat it.

So I guess mistletoe’s place of honor as Cupid’s winter trick isn’t so far off after all – I like to think of it as providing the magic for the life cycle activities of the birds and the bees.

So for Peat’s Sake, (and bear with me – I know this is a bit of a stretch but it took a lot of effort to get here) thank a wetland the next time you get a quick smooch from your sweetie under the mistletoe!

FMI about mistletoe:

http://www.usgs.gov/newsroom/special/mistletoe/

http://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,4570,7-153-10370_22664-61132–,00.html

http://scnps.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Mistletoe.pdf

 

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