Mistletoe (Anglo-Saxon mistiltan, from mistl, different, and tan, twig, as the plant is unlike the tree upon which it grows), a parasitic evergreen shrub of the family loranthacece. The true European mistletoe is viscum album, the generic name being the Latin word for the plant as well as for bird lime. The family comprises about 30 genera of mostly tropical evergreen shrubs, all of which are parasitic, and some of which have showy flowers; a description of the less conspicuous mistletoe will give the general characters of the whole family. The genus viscum, besides the common European one, comprises a few Asiatic species. The mistletoe is succulent when young, but becomes woody when old; its branches are repeatedly forked, and form together dense tufts 1 to 2 ft. in diameter, and attached to the branches of the trees by the thickened base of its main stem; the branches break readily at the distinct joints, at each of which is borne a pair of opposite, sessile, thickish leaves, which vary from narrowly oblong to obovate, but are always entire and obtuse; the flowers are dioecious, nearly sessile in the forks of the branches; those in the male plant three to five together in a somewhat cup-shaped involucre, with short, thick, triangular petals, and the same number of stamens, which are sessile in the centre of the petals, their anthers opening by several pores; the female or pistillate plant has its flowers solitary, rarely two or three together, and consisting of four minute petals at the top of the ovary, which is one-celled, with a simple style, and in ripening forms a white, semi-transparent berry with a single seed, surrounded by an exceedingly viscid or glutinous pulp.
The mistletoe extends from Sweden to the Mediterranean, and is very common in the southern and western counties of England, where it grows upon a great variety of trees; it especially affects the apple, and in the cider districts is very destructive to the trees, as when once established it continues to grow as long as there is any life in its host. It is supposed to be disseminated by birds which feed upon the berries, and that in their attempts to wipe the viscid pulp from their bills they attach the seeds to the bark of the branches. To establish the plant artificially, a small slit of the bark is raised with a knife and the seeds are placed beneath it; this is done upon the under side of a branch to hide the seed from birds. Many experiments have been made upon the germination of this plant, and it is found that, in whatever position the seed may be placed, the radicle, which in ordinary plants tends directly downward, will be directed toward the surface to which the seeds are attached, without reference to gravitation, light, or any other influence.
The radicle is frequently obliged to arch itself over to reach the bark, and when it comes in contact with this its end expands to form a disk which gives it a firm hold; from this proceed roots which penetrate the bark, and thus place the young phmt in contact with that portion of the tree where nutriment is most abundant. An instance is recorded of the growth of one specimen upon another mistletoe. The plant does not grow in the north of England or in Scotland and Ireland, and nurserymen there plant the seeds upon the bark of young apple trees, and sell the trees with the mistletoe already established upon them. The superstitions and legends connected with the mistletoe are numerous; it was held in high veneration by the ancient Britons, and its collection bythedruids was accompanied with great solemnity; the plant is found more rarely upon the oak than upon any other tree, hence that which grew on the oak was regarded with peculiar honor; it was cut on the sixth day after the first new moon of each year, the priest using a golden sickle; the plant was received upon a white cloth and divided among the people, who preserved the fragments as a charm to protect them from disease and every other evil.
In England it is used among Christmas decorations, and during the festivities, if a gentleman discovers a lady beneath the "mistletoe bough" he has a right to a kiss; this is a very old custom which has descended from feudal times, but its real origin and significance are lost. Within recent times the mistletoe has been regarded as a valuable remedy in epilepsy and other diseases, but at present it is not employed. The chief use of the plant is for holiday decorations, for which purpose it is occasionally brought to this country; its berries were formerly used to prepare bird lime, and the leaves have been fed to sheep in times of scarcity of other forage. - The American mistletoe, which was first described as a viscum, is so different from the European that Nuttall made a new genus for it, phoradendron (Gr. , a thief, and , a tree); it differs from viscum in having both kinds of flowers in short catkinlike, jointed spikes and sunk in the joints; there is also a difference in the structure of the anthers. The plant has the same manner of growth, and is similar in general appearance to the European, but the leaves and stems are of a more yellowish green; the berries are white. There are several species of phoradendron, the most common being P. flarcscen.s, which grows from New Jersey and Illinois to Texas and Mexico; there are several varieties, differing in the shape and smoothness of their leaves; it grows upon various deciduous trees, and in Texas is especially abundant on the mezquite, upon which it often grows in such quantities as to hide the proper foliage of the tree. There are half a dozen other species, all belonging to the far south and west. - Another related genu, is arccuthobium, the species of which are small, much branched, leafless, and like the others parasitic-. A. oxycedri is found on various coniferous trees from California to New Mexico, and further north it extends eastward to Hudson bay.
In 1871 Mrs. Millington discovered in Warren co., N. Y., a minute species of arceiitlwhium growing upon the branches of the black spruce (dbies nigra), and about the same time it was discovered by Prof. Peck of Albany. The plant is scarcely more than an inch long, but occurs in such quantities as to seriously injure the trees; it is probably a form of A. campylopodium.
Mistletoe (Yiscum album).