Hanging mistletoe in a doorway in order to get kissed is a classic Christmas tradition. To the ancient Celts and Vikings, mistletoe was a sacred healing plant believed to bestow fertility, bring good luck and avert evil. But there's a sinister side to mistletoe.
Biologist Cindy Ross says that dwarf mistletoe, an evergreen parasitic plant found on conifers in Canada and as far south as Texas, can significantly reduce a tree?s life expectancy. Dwarf mistletoe prefers pines can weaken a tree and make it more susceptible to attack by insects. You can spot dwarf mistletoe by its brushy balls, which have also been called "witch's brooms."
Dwarf mistletoe propagates through explosions. When it's ready to spread its sticky seeds, the plants blast them several feet away, where they can grab onto another pine tree. This is reminiscent of slime mold, a fungus that forms a kind of "space ship" that blasts spores into the air in order to propagate. "Dwarf mistletoe is a serious forest pest," says Ross. "It can create a fire hazard due to dead trees." Recent wildfires in the US have shown us how dangerous this sort of thing can be.
Ross says, "It's ironic that the plant associated with love and well-being at Christmas can be the kiss of death for the trees we?ve come to associate with the same holiday."
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