Growth of Mistletoe
plant grows by photosynthesis until its roots can penetrate the
bark of the tree, drawing water, minerals and some
nutrients. Unless the tree is unhealthy or heavily infested,
mistletoe is unlikely to affect the health of its host. In fact,
studies have shown that mistletoe enhances biodiversity by
providing a year round nesting place and a valuable winter food
source for a wide array of birds. In a cunning bit of mutual
advancement, the birds help to disperse the mistletoe by
ingesting the berries, then excreting or regurgitating the hard
seed high in another tree.
earliest traditions are in Norse mythology where the plant was
considered poisonous because the beloved god Balder was killed
by an arrow fashioned from mistletoe. The old legend has some
wisdom for today. The berries of mistletoe are poisonous, or at
least likely to cause some gastric distress if eaten. When we
hang a sprig of mistletoe, the leaves are real, but the berries
are generally plastic. Better to compromise a holiday custom
than to risk poisoning our pets and small children.
We are all
familiar with the custom of kissing under the mistletoe, and for
many years the plant provided a harmless excuse for a public
display of affection which would otherwise have been strictly
taboo. Perhaps the fact that it is now socially acceptable to
kiss in public has been a factor in mistletoe’s declining
popularity. The American mistletoe industry is centered in
Texas, and is under particular stress due to the drought of the
last two years. Mistletoe is harvested by means of a long hook,
although many years ago it was customary to shoot it out of the
tree with a gun.
holly belongs to the genus Ilex, which consists of more than
four hundred species, ranging from a six-inch dwarf to a seventy
foot tree. Depending on the species, holly berries may be red,
orange, yellow, or even black.
But the holly
that says “Christmas” is most likely to be English holly (Ilex
aquifolium) or American holly (Ilex opaca). The red berries and
evergreen leaves with unmistakable spiny scalloped edges are
emblematic of the holiday season. Holly bears insignificant
white cup shaped flowers in spring and early summer. The plants
are dioecious, meaning that they have either male or female
flowers, and only the female plant bears fruit. For best
results, a male and female should be planted within thirty to
forty feet of each other. Newly planted holly may not bloom for
several years, so be sure to purchase your plant from a
reputable nursery that can assure you of its gender.
Growing your best Holly
best in full sun, and prefer moist well drained soil. They will
tolerate shade, but will not grow to their full potential.
Holly’s natural growing habit is an attractive pyramidal shape,
making it an ideal year round focal point in the garden.
Holly can be
pruned during December and the cuttings can be enjoyed
throughout the holiday season. Holly leaves tend to drop if
they are brought indoors, so it is best to use the cuttings
outdoors. If holly is overgrown, some experts now recommend
the “hat rack” method of pruning. This technique is considered
inappropriate for pruning most trees, but is a successful method
used to rejuvenate holly. In late winter, cut the branches
back by one half to three fourths. The result will indeed
resemble a hat rack, and will be a complete eyesore, but the
plant will rebound fully in two to three years. Though reduced
in size, the foliage will be far more abundant.
plant is completely deer resistant, the American holly, and the
“Morris” hollies, named for John T. and Lydia Morris, donors of
the Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia are generally not browsed
As the lyrics
for the famous Sinatra song remind us, “It’s time for
mistletoe and holly!” Enjoy these two classic holiday
plants during this festive season.