Bob and Barbara Fasy might have the most romantic house in Cape May County this holiday season.
The Upper Township couple has a tree in their front lawn that is chock-full of mistletoe, the festive flora of holiday lore that rarely grows in New Jersey.
“I would climb up there and put a red bow around it if I could,” Barbara Fasy said.
This area is about the farthest north the plant grows in the U.S., whereas it is fairly common in the South. Late fall and winter is the best time of year to spot it because leaves fall away and expose the evergreen plant that sprouts on tree limbs.
Oddly enough, while the Fasys have more mistletoe than they know what to do with, garden centers and florists nearby have had trouble stocking the plant in recent years because some of the largest producers in the country have seen their products withered by drought.
Gabrielle Peragine, a manager at Sea Grove Garden Center on Route 9 in Dennis Township, said her store could not get any this year from the Christmas supply distributor they work with, echoing what a half-dozen other business owners in the area said.
“A lot of people come in asking for it,” she said. “We usually keep it by the register and people see it and say, ‘Oh, mistletoe!’”
The tradition of kissing underneath mistletoe is one of the most quaint and memorable of the holiday season, but it has a vague history. Its roots reach back several centuries, where it apparently stemmed from an ancient belief in the plant’s fertility powers.
Without that custom, mistletoe would be a fairly loathsome plant.
Its name translates from Anglo-Saxon words for “dung” and “twig” because it is most commonly spread through bird defecation. Birds eat the berries, and then the plant sprouts from feces they leave on a branch.
It is a parasite, with appendages that penetrate the tree bark and suck out nutrients.
“It sends these roots right into the tree, and kind of feeds off the tree itself,” said Bob Cartica, administrator of the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Natural Lands Management.
The plant can kill branches or an entire tree if too many of them grow on one.
“Which makes it a little less romantic if you ask me,” said Amy Karpati, director for conservation science at the Pinelands Preservation Alliance.
While they don’t harm birds, the berries are very poisonous for people and pets, so they are usually plucked off before being sold.
“They come with these fake, white berries,” said Peragine about the mistletoe she used to sell.
Different species of mistletoe grow on hundreds of different tree species, but in New Jersey they are most commonly found on maple and sweet gum trees. They can still be easily spotted in the state, but it helps to know what to look for and where to look.
“Once you see one and you really stare at it then you can spot them pretty easily,” said Steve Eisenhauser, regional director of protection and stewardship for Natural Lands Trust.
Eisenhauser works at an office in the Harold N. Peek Preserve in Millville, and he found a shrub there high up in a sweet gum tree on the edge of the Maurice River. On Friday, he peered at it through a scope high up on a branch.
“It sticks out like a flag in the winter,” he said.
He said there is a lot of it in many parts of Cumberland County but much of it deep in the swamps. It can also be found relatively easily in parts of Salem, Gloucester and Camden counties, but rarely any farther north.
It is hard to find in Cape May County, but Eisenhauser actually lives in the same Seaville neighborhood as the Fasys and noticed their mistletoe. Barbara Fasy said neighbors first alerted her to it this past summer.
She said she was not sure what type of tree it was growing on at the end of her driveway, but it looked like a gum tree. She thinks it’s neat, but, being the holiday season, she would not mind giving it away.
“You’re welcome to climb up there and take some,” she said.
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