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In Good Thyme

"Julia's eyes lit up when she saw tall, dark Don walking across the parlor in her direction. The room was dim except for the soft glow of Christmas tree lights. Julia tried to look casual as she positioned herself strategically beneath the doorway. Suddenly, Don swept her into his arms and gently kissed her. Oh, Don, she sighed, glancing upward at the soft green leaves and pearl-like berries of the mistletoe. Little did Julia realize that the Yuletide symbol of love and peace suspended a few feet above their heads was a silent killer.Eeeeyew! One would think that mistletoe rightfully belongs in a bodice-ripping romance novel. But any botanist worth his pollen recognizes that this parasitic evergreen shrub is more appropriately cast in a murder mystery. Mistletoe lives in the tops of many species of trees. Its tentacle-like roots, called haustoria, penetrate bark and suck nutrients and water from its host. Eventually the clinging mistletoe weakens the tree to the point where it is vulnerable to heart rot, diseases and death. There are hundreds of species and sub-species of mistletoe. It is known variously throughout the world as witches' broom, golden bough, birdlime, all heal, devil's fugue, thunderbesen, donnerbesen, and holy wood, among other names. The Druids considered it sacred and used it in winter and summer solstice rituals. The ancient Norse knew it as a symbol of peace. French lore has it that mistletoe was once a tree whose wood was used to build Jesus' cross. Thereafter it was damned to live forever more as the parasitic Herbe de la Croix. In 1893, mistletoe was named the official state flower of Oklahoma. Tired of the teasing they received for having a parasite represent their state, in 1986 Oklahomans voted mistletoe out in favor of the Indian blanket flower. The English and Scandinavians carried the custom of kissing beneath mistletoe from ancient times through the present. After all, the plant symbolized love. Of course, it was also credited with bringing hunting prowess, good health, fertility, and protection from lightning. If you hung it over the cradle, fairies wouldn't steal the baby. If you wore a sprig around your neck, you would be invisible. Oh yes, and in a pinch, you could use it to perform an exorcism. It was the handy-dandy Swiss Army Knife of ancient herbs.The Druids observed that mistletoe is both a cure and a poison. While extracts of mistletoe have been used for centuries to cure everything from epilepsy to extreme giddiness, its toxic proteins probably killed more people than it cured. Modern scientists are taking a second look at mistletoe's medical benefits, however. Extracts of American and African mistletoe may some day be recognized as an accepted treatment for diabetes. European mistletoe is undergoing serious studies for treatment of pancreatic cancer. Practitioners of homeopathic medicine are using tinctures of the plant to treat a variety of ailments, but the FDA has yet to approve mistletoe for anything other than Christmas kisses. There is no love lost between foresters and mistletoe. A few clumps aren't dangerous and can be controlled by pruning, but a heavy infestation can endanger an entire forest of susceptible trees. The plant is spread from tree to tree by birds, which eat and digest the berries, then excrete the seeds that adhere to branches and form new plantlets. Birds aren't the culprits in all cases, however. Some mistletoe species forcibly shoot their seeds directly into tree tissue. Mistletoe is a troublemaker in many tree species from Northern California northward. In Washington, it's more of a problem on the dry side of the mountains than here. Hemlock, however, is particularly vulnerable to mistletoe infestation in Western Washington. The Washington State University Cooperative Extension Department of Natural Resource Sciences claims that an estimated 148 million cubic feet of timber are lost annually in all species to dwarf mistletoe in Washington and Oregon. The Whidbey Island home gardener needn't be overly concerned about mistletoe in landscape trees. However, it's probably not a bad idea to keep your store-bought Christmas mistletoe off the compost pile and away from hungry birds. And if you don't want to be kissed, keep it out of the way of that tall, dark Don. ----------------Mariana Graham, a writer and former editor, is a Master Gardener certified through the WSU-Island County Cooperative Extension Service. If you have questions or comments, contact her at the Whidbey News Times, 675-6611; fax 675-2732; or e-mail wnt@whidbey.net. "

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