Mistletoe is a hemiparasitic evergreen plant which perches on the branches of deciduous trees, thus leeching water and mineral salts from these woody parts. Larger Mistletoe specimens can in fact kill off the branches of trees by dehydrating them in the extreme.
The Mistletoe is a small evergreen shrub which normally reaches a diameter of up to 1m in size. Many forked, its overall shape is spherical. It has a short stout trunk with yellowish-green branches which easily break into the joints of branching shoots. Its leathery deciduous leaves are opposite and paired; tongue or lancet-shaped; are normally two to five times as long as they are wide; are hairless and have smooth margins. Depending on the elements, the leaves may over-winter on the shrub or may be dropped. Mistletoe is dioecious and flowers from March to May in an unspectacular manner: first, small green flowers which later turn into whitish to yellowish round, pea-sized berries in November-December or even as late as the subsequent spring. Birds – and in particular, the Turdus viscivorus or Mistle Thrush – love the stringy, slimy pulp of the berries, spreading Mistletoe seeds to other branches by way of droppings or with their beaks when picking through the sticky pulp. Seeds hibernate until around March and only begin to germinate at specific temperatures and with ample light conditions. The seedling can already put down sinker roots in the host plant. In the following year, these roots, running parallel to the axis of the branch, put down so-called haustoria, the roots which absorb food from the host.
A Eurasian shrub, Mistletoe may be found in Southern and Central Europe and as far to the north as Scandinavia and as far to the east as Russia and western Iran. Not occurring in certain parts of the Alps but found in all provinces in Austria. Found widely in the Donau-Auen National Park, particularly in willows and hybrid poplars.
Endangerment and Conservation Status
Not vulnerable in either Austria or in Europe.
Mistletoe is a hemiparasite. To obtain the water and nutrients necessary for development, the Mistletoe "docks on" to the host tree by way of its haustoria (a type of root), yet the shrub does have green leaves containing chlorophyll and can manufacture food for itself by way of photosynthesis. The host tree is not always severely damaged by Mistletoe, but host branches may gradually wither and even eventually die due to lack of water.
The sticky seeds as well as other parts of the plant were traditionally used to make a type of lime, or paste. In many European countries, but particularly in England, the Mistletoe is a popular decorative item at Christmas. As a medicinal plant, Mistletoe has been popular since ancient times. Young leaves are used in homeopathy, whereby they must not be cooked or blanched; they have diuretic properties and are used to lower blood pressure and heart rate. The shrub has been found to inhibit growth of or even kill off certain organic and animal tumours (cancer) and has thus been adopted for use in cancer treatment. Having played a major role in ancient mythology, both Greek and Nordic, Mistletoe is still reputed to have special powers and is thought to be able to drive away demons and bring happiness. The shrub has always been popular as a motif and symbol in jewellery and decorative items, especially of the Jugendstil movement.