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Tales from a Plant Addict

Fun (& a few serious) facts, tips and tricks for every gardener, new and old.
Mistletoe1 smaller

Mistletoe Part 1-- The Parasitic Plant

We may associate mistletoe with kisses during the holiday season, but mistletoe is a bully in the plant world. OK, technically it is a parasite. But practically speaking it is like a schoolyard bully looking for a victim to steal lunch money from.

There is a lot more to mistletoe than I ever thought. Honestly, my experience with mistletoe is limited to the artificially-colored preserved sprigs that pop up in stores this time of year. I was shocked to find there are over 1300 different species of this plant parasite worldwide. Mistletoes are also related to the sandalwoods, a group of parasitic plants mostly known for their scent.

Mistletoe is an obligate parasite, meaning it cannot live without its host plant, but it is also considered a hemi-parasite ("half-parasite"). For mistletoe, this means it absorbs only water and materials dissolved in water carried through the host plant. Mistletoe carries out photosynthesis to produce its own food sources, just like any other green plant. The range of possible host plants depends on each mistletoe species. Some have very broad host ranges, others very narrow.

Several of mistletoes exist in the U.S. and are typically considered pests, as they may disfigure or kill its host plant over time. A particularly troublesome mistletoe is Dwarf Mistletoe (Arceuthobium spp.), which looks nothing like the mistletoe we see during the holidays, but is still a mistletoe. It is only about an inch tall and its leaves resemble flattened scales.

Many mistletoes are fairly inconspicuous, with small flowers and fruits at specific times of year, but many put on spectacular displays of large colorful flowers. Some depend on birds or other animals to disperse their seed, others have evolved berries that explode with enough force to spread seed far and wide. Scientists have even found specimens where one mistletoe plant growing on its woody host has two additional mistletoes stacked on top of each other, each parasitizing the mistletoe it was attached to!

This diversity has attracted attention from researchers. Dr. Dan Nickrent of SIU Carbondale used DNA fingerprinting to construct a pedigree of the enormous group of plants labeled as mistletoes, hoping to find a common ancestor for their parasitic lifestyle. Instead, he found that among mistletoes, the parasitic lifestyle had evolved five independent times.

Check out the next blog post to learn how a parasite like mistletoe become associated with kisses and the Christmas.

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