Photo provided by Alan Kessler, USGS
What exactly is Mistletoe? Mistletoe is a seriously fascinating plant. There are over 1,300 species worldwide, 30 of which occur in North America and 20 or more that are endangered across the globe. To get a bit technical, mistletoe is an aerial flowering evergreen perennial, which means you will see it growing in trees rather than on the ground and throughout all four seasons. It's considered a hemiparasitic plant, because although it feeds off of the water and nutrients provided by a host tree or shrub, many species produce their own food through photosynthesis, making them only partially parasitic. How does it parasitize trees and shrubs? When a sticky mistletoe seed is either transported by an animal or deposited by a bird onto a limb, it waits for a good rain then gets busy producing a rootlike structure called a haustorium that penetrates the surface of its host. This structure is how it depletes or at least decreases the water and nutrients the host tree or shrub needs. How can you spot mistletoe? You can find at least one species in almost every state or province in North America. The best time to see it is in winter because, as mentioned, it is an evergreen and when leaves are absent, you can find these large masses more easily. You're looking for a large round ball of greenery attached to trees (see photo below). If you find these, then you are possibly in the presence of mistletoe! Mistletoe berries may be white as well as pink or red, so you aren't only looking for the all-too-familiar white ones. But remember, no matter what the color, don't snack on them, they may not be toxic to wildlife but are known to be quite toxic to humans.