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is the common name for various parasitic plants in the order
Santalales, belonging to the families Santalaceae, Loranthaceae and
Misodendraceae. The species in Santalaceae were formerly commonly
treated in a separate family Viscaceae.
The name was originally applied to Viscum album
(European Mistletoe, Santalaceae; the only species native in Great
Britain and much of Europe), and subsequently to other related species,
including Phoradendron leucarpum (the Eastern Mistletoe of
eastern North America, also Santalaceae). In an example of convergent
evolution, several less related but superficially very similar plants
in the Loranthaceae are also so similar that they have also been called
The European Mistletoe is readily
recognized by its smooth-edged oval leaves in pairs along the woody
stem, and waxy white berries in dense clusters of 2-6 together.
American Mistletoe is similar, but has shorter, broader leaves and
longer clusters of ten or more berries together.
biodiversity is markedly higher in subtropical and tropical climates;
Australia has 85 species, of which 71 are in Loranthaceae, and 14 in
The species grow on a wide range of
trees, and can eventually prove fatal to them where infestation is
heavy, though damage more commonly only results in growth reduction.
Most mistletoes are only partial parasites, bearing evergreen leaves
that carry out some photosynthesis of their own, relying on the host
mainly for mineral nutrients from the ground. The genus Arceuthobium
(dwarf mistletoe; Santalaceae) has dispensed with even this, becoming a
total parasite relying on its host plant for photosynthesis as well as
Most mistletoes are spread by birds
(e.g. the Mistle Thrush in Europe, and the Phainopepla in southwestern
North America) which eat the berries. The seeds are excreted in their
droppings and stick to twigs, or more commonly the bird grips the fruit
in its bill, squeezing the sticky coated seed out to the side, and then
wiping its bill clean on a suitable branch. The seeds are coated with a
sticky gum, viscin, which hardens and attaches the seed firmly to its
The word 'mistletoe' is of uncertain etymology; it may be related to German Mist, another word for dung, but Old English mistel was also used for basil.
historically often considered a pest that kills trees and devalues
natural habitats, mistletoe has recently become recognized as an
ecological keystone, an organism that has a disproportionately
pervasive influence over its community. A broad array of animals depend
on mistletoe for food, consuming the leaves and young shoots as well as
transferring pollen between plants and dispersing the sticky fruits.
The dense evergreen clumps also make excellent locations for roosting
and nesting, with species ranging from Northern Spotted Owls, Marbled
Murrelets, Diamond Firetails and Painted Honeyeaters recorded nesting
in different mistletoes. This behaviour is probably far more widespread
than currently recognised; more than 240 species of birds that nest in
foliage in Australia have been recorded nesting in mistletoe,
representing more than 75% of the resident avifauna. These interactions
lead to dramatic influences on diversity, as areas with greater
mistletoe densities support higher diversities of animals. Thus, rather
than being a pest, mistletoe can have a positive effect on
biodiversity, providing high quality food and habitat for a broad range
of animals in forests and woodlands worldwide.
Uses and mythology
leaves and young twigs are the parts used by herbalists, and it is
popular in Europe, especially in Germany, for treating circulatory and
respiratory system problems, and cancer. Mistletoe is being studied as
a potential treatment for tumors. Although such use is not yet
permitted in the U.S., Mistletoe is prescribed in Europe .
figured prominently in Norse mythology (whence the modern Western
custom of kissing under bunches of it hung as holiday decorations). The
god Baldur was killed with a weapon made of mistletoe. In Celtic
mythology and in Druid rituals, it was considered an antidote to
poison, but contact with its berries produces a rash similar to the
poison ivy rash in people who are sensitive to it (as many are), so the
whole plant came to be thought of as poisonous.
Romanian traditions, mistletoe (vâsc in romanian) is considered as a
source of good fortune. The medical and the supposed magical properties
of the plant are still used, especially in rural areas. This custom is
inherited from Dacians.
Mistletoe has sometimes
been nick-named the "vampire plant" because it can probe beneath the
tree bark to drain water and minerals, enabling it to survive during a
drought (see vampirism). William Shakespeare gives it an unflattering
reference in Titus Andronicus, Act II, Scene I: "Overcome with moss and baleful mistletoe"
Nowadays, mistletoe is commonly used as a Christmas decoration. Viscum album is used in Europe whereas Phoradendron leucarpum
is used in North America. According to a custom of Christmas cheer, any
two people who meet under a hanging of mistletoe are obliged to kiss.
was the official flower for the State of Oklahoma until 2004 when it
was replaced by the Oklahoma Rose. Mistletoe however still serves as
the state's official floral emblem.