Mistletoe: Mysterious tree-dweller


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The Celtic Druids climbed into the oak trees at full moon to cut mistletoe branches with their golden sickles and use them to brew mysterious potions - that's how the popular Asterix comics teach us. The Germans, however, cut the mistletoe branches as a lucky charm for the winter solstice. And in the Norse mythology, the peculiar plant has a fateful role, because the mistletoe was almost the trigger for the downfall of the kingdom of Asgard: Baldur, the beautiful son of the goddess Frigga, could not be killed by any earthly creature. His mother had taken an oath to all creatures living on the ground. Only the lofty mistletoe had forgotten her. The devious Loki carved a mistletoe arrow and gave it to Baldur's blind twin brother, Hödur, who, like others, sometimes enjoyed shooting his bow at Baldur - nothing could happen. The Mistelpfeil but killed this on the spot.

The mistletoe - a half-parasite

Above all, their unusual way of life was the reason why the mistletoe enjoyed a high reputation among the primitive peoples - it is namely a so-called half-parasite. Mistletoes do not have a common root system, but form special suction roots (haustoria), with which they penetrate into the wood of the host tree and tap its channels to receive water and nutrient salts. In contrast to the real parasites, they themselves operate photosynthesis and are therefore not dependent on the finished metabolic products of their host plant. Whether they actually tap into this, but among experts is now controversial. The lateral roots also penetrate into the bark, through which the trees transport their sugars.
Mistletoes have adapted in other respects perfectly to the life in the treetops: they bloom already in March, when the trees still bear no leaves, but their berries mature in December, when the trees are bare again. This makes it easier to find the flowers and berries of insects and birds. The spherical, stocky growth of mistletoe also has a good reason: It does not offer the wind high up in the treetops much attack surface to tear the plants from their anchorage. The particular growth form arises because the shoots do not have a so-called terminal bud from which the next shoot section is formed in other plants in the following year. Instead, each shoot divides at its end in two to five approximately equally long side shoots, all branching off at about the same angle.

Evergreen and round

Especially in winter, the mostly ball-shaped bushes are widely visible, because unlike poplars, willows and other host plants, mistletoes are evergreen. They are often seen in damp, mild climates, for example in the river meadows along the Rhine. In the drier continental climate of Eastern Europe, on the other hand, they are rarer. Because of their evergreen leaves mistletoes do not tolerate intense winter sun - when the pathways of the host plant are frozen, the mistletoe quickly suffers from dehydration - their green leaves then dry up and become brown.

Mistletoes on tree

If the trees are unbelaubt, one recognizes the spherical Mistelbüsche already from a distance. They give the trees a ghostly appearance in winter

The host trees of the domestic mistletoe species

Mistletoes form three subspecies in Central Europe: The hardwood mistletoe (Viscum album subsp. Album) lives on poplars, willows, apple trees, pear trees, hawthorn, birch, oak, linden and maple. Even non-indigenous tree species such as the American oak (Quercus rubra) can be infested. It does not occur on red beech, sweet cherries, plum trees, walnuts and plane trees. The fir-mistletoe (Viscum album subsp. Abietis) lives exclusively on firs, the pine mistletoe (Viscum album subsp. Austriacum) infests pines and occasionally spruces.

Berries on mistletoe

The ripe mistletoe berries look like white pearls

Mistletoe: beneficiary of climate change

Most often, trees are infested with soft wood such as poplar and willow. As a rule, the mistletoe deprives her host tree of just enough water and nutrients to keep him alive - after all, she would literally saw off the branch on which she sits. But in the meantime, the effects of climate change are also showing themselves here: Thanks to the mild winter, the plants spread so much in places that in some willows and poplars each thicker branch is covered with several mistletoe bushes. So much infestation can cause the host tree to enter slowly.

Place mistletoes on branches

If you have a mistletoe-infested apple tree in the garden, you should thin out the stock regularly by cutting individual mistletoes with pruning shears close to the branch.On the other hand, there are many hobby gardeners who want to settle the attractive evergreen bushes in their garden. Nothing easier than that: just take a few ripe bog cranberries and squeeze them into the bark furrows of a suitable host tree. After a few years the evergreen mistletoe forms.
As a decorative material, the evergreen, berry-studded mistletoe in the run-up to Christmas are in great demand. Although mistletoes are not protected, cutting in the wild is subject to approval for tree protection reasons. Unfortunately, mistletoe pickers often saw whole branches off the trees in order to reach the coveted shrubs. Make appropriate inquiries to the local conservation authority.

Mistletoe witchwort

The dose makes the poison - or the medicine

Mistletoes as a medicinal raw material

The white berries and other parts of the mistletoe are poisonous and should not be kept within reach of children. But as always, the dose makes the poison: Since ancient times, mistletoe is used as a natural remedy for dizziness and epileptic seizures. In modern medicine, the juice is used, among other things as a raw material for antihypertensive preparations.

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