As a kid, about this time of year, my friends and I would collect mistletoe to sell door to door in the neighborhood.
To be honest, the selling part was not that interesting but the collecting – that was awesome! My favorite technique involved climbing high into the branches of a tree with a knife or small saw (usually held in your teeth to facilitate climbing), slicing off an appropriate bunch and dropping it down to the ground. My friends’ dad was horrified at this technique and deemed it far too dangerous for kids our age – he had a much safer plan in mind (passed down through several generations of South Georgia boys/men). Five minutes later, Ray showed up with a small gauge shotgun and a pile of shells. He took careful aim at a “primo” clump of mistletoe and blasted it to the ground where we could safely harvest it for sale. In a matter of a few minutes we had enough mistletoe to sell the whole county. I realized that this technique, while appearing crude, took some real skill to avoid blowing all the berries off the clump – and besides, the use of firearms really added to the fun.
Mistletoe has a long convoluted history of supposed magical powers and mystical properties. It was a favorite of the ancient Druids who used it to promote fertility, cure illness and treat poisoning. Mistletoe was used throughout the middle ages to ward off harmful spirits and even to prevent fires in houses. After settlement in the Americas, Europeans likely adopted our mistletoe Phoradendron spp. which looks pretty similar to the European varieties. The custom of kissing under the mistletoe may have started by the early Greeks who associated the plant with fertility and marriage rites. The Scandanavians believed that the plant represented peace and warring groups could form truces or cease fires under it. A later American custom developed into the tradition that any who kissed under this plant would likely be married.
Mistletoe is actually a hemi-parasitic plant that is capable of making its own food but also will parasitize many species of deciduous trees as well. The common species found in the S.C. lowcountry is Phoradendron serotinum but there are many other species of mistletoe in the United States. Mistletoe berries are eaten by a variety of animals – especially birds, who use the pulp as an important food source. They spread the berries to the trunks of other trees through feces where they germinate in the canopy. Modified mistletoe roots grow directly into the trunk of the host tree providing water and some energy to the plant. Mistletoe can cause problems to the host tree if its growth is not checked, by crowding out leaves the tree needs for photosynthesis, though it usually does not kill its host.