February 15, 2021
Ben here with Monday's edition of #BenInNature presented by our friends at Carter Bank & Trust!
Back around Christmas, I spent a fair amount of time stomping through the woods around my family property trying to find American mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum). While there apparently isn't a speck of mistletoe anywhere on my property, I was fortunate to find a very nice example on a tree right in the VMNH parking lot!
Mistletoe is an unusual plant and winter is the best time to spot it; if you see a big mass of green hanging from the branches of an otherwise bare deciduous tree, you've likely spotted some mistletoe. It is what's known as a "hemi-parasitic" plant, meaning that it draws water and nutrients from a host plant but is also photosynthetic. It is spread by birds, which eat the fruits of mistletoe and then excrete the seeds while sitting on the branches of other trees (the fruit is covered in a sticky substance that helps it stick to the branches). Once they land on a branch, the seeds produce something called a "haustorium," which is a root-like structure that burrows into the bark of the host tree and begins drawing water and nutrients from it before eventually growing into a small woody shrub.
While mistletoe is often considered a nuisance or an eyesore, a single plant likely won't harm an otherwise healthy tree. However, if a large number of mistletoe plants parasitize a tree that is already stressed by other factors, it can occasionally be fatal to the tree's health. Mistletoe is arguably worse for humans than it is for trees, however; ingesting the berries can cause stomach irritation, diarrhea, low blood pressure, and a slowed pulse.
Of course, mistletoe is most famous as a Christmas decoration; just about everyone is familiar with the old tradition of "kissing under the mistletoe," a tradition upheld to this day by generations of desperate men! It definitely makes an attractive decoration during the depths of winter. I still have fond memories of going out into the woods with my great-uncle "Daddy Bob" Sizemore to collect mistletoe. He had a special precision instrument he would use to carefully harvest mistletoe from trees: a 12-gauge shotgun loaded with birdshot. Once you got past the pellet holes and powder burns on the leaves, it really spruced up the place around Christmas!
Social distancing can be difficult, but it presents a great opportunity to become reacquainted with nature. In this series of posts, Administrator of Science Ben Williams ventures outdoors to record a snapshot of the unique sights that can be found in the natural world. New updates are posted Monday - Friday, with previous posts highlighted on the weekends. This series of posts is made possible thanks to the support of VMNH Corporate Partner Carter Bank & Trust (www.cbtcares.com)
NATURE PHOTO IDENTIFICATIONS
If you discover something in nature that you would like help identifying, be sure to message us right here on Facebook with a picture (please include location and date of picture) and we'll have our experts help you identify it!