Question: Does mistletoe grow in New Jersey?

Answer: There are actually some 1,300 species of mistletoe found worldwide. Viscum album, the European mistletoe, and Phoradendron serotinum, from North America are the two most common types of mistletoe used as decoration during the holidays. Phoradendron serotinum are native to this area and can be found as a semi-parasitic plant on trees from New Jersey to Florida. It can be found on beech, dogwood, maple, oak and many other local forest trees.

The name “mistletoe” is thought to derive from the Anglo-Saxon “mist” or “mistel”, meaning dung, and “tan”, meaning twig, or “dung twig”. Mistletoe means “dung-on-a-twig.” That name stems from the fact that mistletoe is mostly spread by birds, through their droppings. Birds squeeze mistletoe seeds from the fruits before eating them. The pulp of the berry is very sticky. The seeds often get stuck on the birds bill so as they rub their bill against the branches to clean them, the seeds are deposited. The sticky pulp allows the seeds to stay put on a limb until they sprout.

Mistletoe invades a living branch of a host tree or bush with a shallow root (called a “hastorium”) and absorbs food, minerals and water, and also produces food through photosynthesis in its evergreen leaves, making it a semi-parasitic plant. Mistletoe grows in balls and can sometimes reach ninety pounds. Flowers appear in late summer and turn into the berries that people are most familiar with as a decoration.

From the earliest times mistletoe has been one of the most magical, mysterious and sacred plants of European folklore. It was considered a “bestower of life and fertility; a protectant against poison; and an aphrodisiac.”

In ancient times, wood priests, called Druids, believed it could bestow health and good luck. To the ancient Druids it was a sacred symbol with magical powers and medicinal properties. Mistletoe was so sacred to the Druids that if two enemies met beneath a tree where mistletoe was growing, they would lay down their weapons, exchange a greeting, and call a truce until the following day. During the Victorian era, the British revived the tradition of using mistletoe as part of the Christmas legend.

Superstition also told that if couples exchanged a kiss under the mistletoe, they increased their probability of marriage in the coming year. Traditional etiquette also states that that when a man kisses a woman under mistletoe, he should pluck a berry, and when the last berry is gone there should be no more kissing.

To control mistletoe, there are growth regulators that will provide short-term relief but need to be applied by a professional applicator. Pruning the branch or pruning out just the mistletoe will also provide only temporary relief. Birds spread the seeds, and as long as they are around, you will have the chance of it recurring. However, if your tree is healthy and well-watered, the chances are it will remain as such. In drought conditions, branch dieback can occur from the point where the mistletoe is attached to the tip of the branch. In extreme cases, it can significantly kill or disfigure a tree.

For more information on mistletoe you can contact your local extension office. Atlantic County residents can contact 609-625-0056. Cape May County Residents can call 609-465-5115, ext.3607.

Interested in becoming a Rutgers Certified Master Gardener? Classes in Atlantic County are forming now. Classes begin Tuesday, Jan. 7, and run on Tuesday mornings at the Rutgers Cooperative Extension office in Mays Landing. Applications are available on our website at rutgers-atlantic.org/garden. Please call 609-625-0056 for more information. Cape May County residents are welcome.

Do you have a gardening related question you would like answered here? Please forward your questions to Belinda Chester, Master Gardener Program Coordinator, Rutgers Cooperative Extension Office, 6260 Old Harding Highway, Mays Landing, NJ 08330. You can also submit questions at Rutgers-atlantic.org/garden or email them to currents@catamaran.com; please include “garden question” in the subject line.

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