Where I lived in Georgia, country folks shot mistletoe out of the trees when it was time to decorate, because it grew everywhere.
Once you have decorated with shot-out-of-trees mistletoe, those wilted specimens in the plastic packages pale in comparison.
Still, they are the product of a horticultural industry providing a seasonal product rich in tradition. And not everyone can or should shoot mistletoe out of their trees!
So what about that mistletoe? You may know that it’s a parasitic plant, with a native range that comes up into the Ohio Valley. Next time you travel south in winter, look for green globes of foliage in the crowns of the otherwise-bare oak trees. That’s mistletoe. Cross the Ohio into Kentucky and it’s everywhere.
Mistletoe can compete in a tree’s crown for sunlight, also removing water and nutrients through the bark, but healthy trees can usually tolerate it. The trade-off is favorable for wildlife.
Without mistletoe, there are three butterfly species that wouldn’t exist. The mistletoe flower’s pollen and nectar is an important source of food for honeybees. And those sticky white berries are favored by evening grosbeaks, bluebirds and grouse. Even the cover provided by that globe of foliage provides habitat for raptors and migratory songbirds.
If you have small children or pets, be aware that mistletoe can be toxic. Reactions when it is eaten can range from mild stomach upset to — in rare instances — death. Of course, the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe should be free of tragedy, so keep it completely out of reach.
The poinsettia is another tropical plant that has is part of a rich holiday tradition. Breeders have upped the drama with colors beyond red and green, and there’s nothing like blooming poinsettias as part of a mantle, altar or tablescape.
For more information on growing the, Purdue Extension has resources.
Christmas cactus and Norfolk Island pine can also add to the Yuletide cheer. The cactus is often given as a gift, and getting it to rebloom the following year takes some doing, as one must expose it to about 12 hours of total darkness daily for about 60 days leading up to the desired bloom time. It’s rewarding if you like that sort of thing!
The Norfolk Island Pine is a tropical tree that cannot tolerate temperatures much below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, so keep it indoors for the most part. Some folks will move a Norfolk Pine to their patio in summer. Decorated or not, it’s a great addition to the indoors if you like trees.
Plants given and enjoyed during the holidays carry rich tradition as well as their own nature-story. Learning and passing along those traditions and stories is part of the fun.