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What Is Dwarf Mistletoe?

Dwarf mistletoe is a parasitic plant notorious for infesting and damaging trees, particularly conifers. Unlike its festive relative, it saps nutrients, stunting growth and causing abnormal twig clusters called "witches' brooms." Understanding its lifecycle is key to protecting forest health. How does this tiny organism wield such influence over its towering hosts? Join us as we uncover the impact of this miniature marvel.
Britt Archer
Britt Archer

Dwarf mistletoe is not the same plant that a holiday merrymaker hangs overhead with the hope of stealing a kiss from the person who is caught under the dangling sprig with him. The kissing tradition is not tied to the dwarf variety, which has green berries. The custom of kissing under the mistletoe is reserved for the variety with white berries. The dwarf type is notable for the way it reproduces, a method that employs water under pressure to disperse its seeds. This method allows the dwarf mistletoe to shoot is seeds more than 60 feet (18.28 meters).

The cells of Arceuthobium americanum, or dwarf mistletoe, are designed to forcefully expel the water that is stored in them. This forced expulsion acts as a sort of slingshot for the seeds. The method is quite successful and has enabled the dwarf mistletoe to reproduce prolifically. Its unique method of reproduction ensures its survival in a forest, but it is detrimental to many kinds of timber. In some locations, dwarf mistletoe is considered invasive and especially harmful. Mistletoe plants all take minerals and water from their host trees, but the dwarf variety takes this parasitic relationship a step further by also taking the host tree’s sugar stores, weakening the host.

Mistletoe has been used in medicine to treat hemorrhoids.
Mistletoe has been used in medicine to treat hemorrhoids.

Known also as witches’ brooms, dwarf mistletoe is particularly invasive in North America where it attacks a variety of hemlock trees, several types of pine, western larch and the Douglas fir. The plant is also found in Central America, Africa and Asia. The devastation it causes leads to a weakening of the host trees and eventually to the death of trees. In some dwarf species, with the help of high winds, the plant can cast its seeds as far as 100 feet (30.48 meters). Smaller and younger trees, less than a decade old, generally escape the parasite’s devastation because it tends to attack taller and older trees.

A relative, the European mistletoe, attaches itself mainly to oak and apple trees. The sight of its green leaves and white berries in winter, flourishing when most plants in the countryside are barren, led to its association with strength and fertility. Different parts of the European mistletoe have been used for their medicinal properties. No clinical evidence exists that the plant can fight cancer in humans, although it attacks some cancerous cells in laboratory test tubes, and some people have relied on it for cancer treatment since the early 20th century. Uses of mistletoe in medicine include high blood pressure, certain heart conditions, hemorrhoids, gout, epilepsy, depression, menopause, headaches, and some other conditions.

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    • Mistletoe has been used in medicine to treat hemorrhoids.
      By: Andrea Danti
      Mistletoe has been used in medicine to treat hemorrhoids.