Monday, February 23, 2015

Pucker up!

It’s not Christmas, but I’m standing beneath mistletoe.

I’m not waiting to be kissed but I am wondering: Mistletoe? In the sycamore tree? Is that even possible?

It is. Finding this Florida native plant in deciduous trees is common in winter when circular clumps of mistletoe stand out against bare branches.

Green mistletoe is easy to see when a tree is no longer covered in leaves

That’s how I noticed the mistletoe. For several months, I’ve been watching the seasonal flutter of falling leaves. While many land on the ground, a substantial number of the large, brown, leathery leaves also end up in our gutters. My husband has agreed to clean the clogged gutters but not until the last leaf has finally left the tree.

Sycamore leaves everywhere

His procrastination turned me into a relentlessly diligent leaf monitor. However, as fewer and fewer leaves remained, I became aware of a patch of greenery that didn’t belong.

The greenery is mistletoe, a parasitic evergreen plant that grows in the upper branches of deciduous trees. Mistletoe has an unusual way of landing in those trees.

Mature mistletoe plants, Phoradendron laucarpum, bear small, showy flowers that attract pollinating insects. A pollinated flower can take a year or longer to develop into a white-fleshed berry that contains one extremely sticky seed. 

Mistletoe berries beginning to form

A bird eating a berry — the fruit is toxic to most animals except birds — will either excrete the seed while sitting on a branch or rub its beak against the limb in an attempt to dislodge the sticky seed from its beak. Either way, feathered fliers act as inadvertent mistletoe propagators, transferring the plant from one location to another.

By rubbing its beak against a branch, birds like this chipping sparrow help spread mistletoe to different arboreal locations

Once deposited on a branch, the sticky mistletoe seed germinates in the sun and sends a feeding organ similar to a root into the tree bark to absorb water and nutrients from underlying tissues in the host’s branches. The feeding organ called haustoria, can penetrate only thin-barked trees such as sycamore, laurel oaks, water oaks, chinaberry and elms. Although this harms the tree — a tree covered with too many clumps of mistletoe, can lose enough water and nutrients to die — it benefits the mistletoe, enabling it to thrive independent of soil.

Parasites are like that. They suck life from their hosts to gain a foothold on life itself.

Before I began monitoring the tree to let my husband know when the last leaf had fallen, not only was I unaware that mistletoe grew in Florida, I hadn’t given much thought to the nature of parasitic plants. Now that I have, the thought of kissing someone under a parasitic mistletoe plant seems rather unsettling.

But I’ll do it. I will. As soon as those clogged up gutters are finally cleaned out, I’ll be standing beneath the sycamore tree — right under that clump of green mistletoe. Let the smooching begin!

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