This time of year many of us are caught up in the traditions of our families and culture. A well-ingrained and fun tradition is that of mandatory kissing under a suspended branch of mistletoe, Phoradendron serotinum.
Scientists have discovered that this pretty (but poisonous to humans) plant has been around for tens of thousands of years and numbers around 1,300 different species worldwide. In North America, the white berry variety grows in bunches on Oak trees while it pirates the tree's nutrients.
Birds eat mistletoe berries and use it as nesting material as do owls, hawks, jays, bluebirds, grouse, and many others. Additionally, there are three kinds of butterfly (e.g., purple hairstreak, thicket hairstreak, and the Johnson’s hairstreak) that depend completely on mistletoe for food and as a place to lay their eggs. Large, animals like elk, cattle and deer eat mistletoe during winter when fresh foliage is rare.
According to the US Geological Survey, "Mistletoe has been widely used in Europe and is regarded as the most widely used natural therapy for cancer. In addition, it has many uses in traditional Chinese medicine as well as in traditional indigenous groups in Australia and Latin America."
So, the next time you see mistletoe, you'll know that humans aren't the only ones who appreciate all it has to offer. Happy holidays! Go science!