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Shrubs in the Treetops: a Portrait of Mistletoe

By Jenn Roe, Natural History Docent at-large

Summer is gone and our world shifts gears into fall, and then winter mode. The blooms of the earlier seasons give way to fruits of their vegetative labor: seed beds, berries, nuts, and other forms of embryonic plant progeny, all hold promise of next year’s floral offspring plus an extra yield: cuisine for native wildlife in the fall and winter. Observant hikers can spy autumnal foodstuff while wandering the mountain’s grocery aisles aka trails. Coffeeberry, blackberry, toyon berry and wild grapes, madrone and manzanita fruits, bright red rosehips are just some of the menu items on offer. And oh so many acorns, the tremendous autumn and winter food source for many oak woodland residents. But acorns aren’t the only seasonal edibles found in oak branches. Look up in the tree’s crown and you might see an evergreen shrub that grows in a jumbled ball of fuzzy stems and leaves, a native plant with a rich natural and cultural history and yet routinely misunderstood: oak mistletoe.

Mistletoe conjures up the holidays in many human cultures, but for wildlife it represents an altogether different reality. Food, shelter, a place to hunt, nutrients for the soil and plant-life beneath it, a plant host for hungry caterpillars. These are all ways that oak mistletoe interacts with life around it. To know it is to love it – or at least like it more. What better reason to delve into the nature – and culture – of mistletoe?

Historically, mistletoe is a plant-celeb, well represented in international folklore and myth. Early on, oak-worshipping Druids adopted mistletoe as a sacred symbol of life and fertility evidenced by evergreen leaves and bountiful berries in the dead of frozen winter. Kissing under mistletoe by then considered an aphrodisiac began during Kronia, the Greek harvest festival later Roman Saturnalia. It was incorporated in fertility rights used in marriage ceremonies and on farms. Ancient Romans and Scandinavians thought it a plant of peace under which warring enemies and quarreling couples could call a truce. In medieval Europe, homes decked with mistletoe were protected from fire, trolls, and