National Geographic News
Mistletoe, it turns out, is important for far more than sneaking in smooches during the holidays.
The parasitic plants are a vital member of many types of forests—and may even be the key to renewing ailing woodlands, according to ongoing research.
"Even though mistletoe represents a minor component of the habitats it inhabits, in terms of species richness, abundance, and biomass, it has a disproportionately strong and pervasive influence on diversity patterns," said David Watson, an associate professor of ecology at the Institute for Land, Water, and Society at Charles Sturt University in Albury, Australia.
In 2001 Watson wrote a paper outlining mistletoe's role as a "keystone resource" that helps increase the diversity and abundance of wildlife in forest environments.
The plant serves as a nesting ground and food source for many animals, often increasing the number of species in its vicinity, Watson said.
Since then additional research has shed light on just how important mistletoe is to the overall health of woodland plants and animals.
Mistletoe can refer to approximately 1,500 or so parasitic plants that live high above the ground in trees or shrubs around the world.
Unlike other plant parasites, especially those that live underground, mistletoe makes its own energy through photosynthesis and relies on its hosts mostly for water and minerals. Though it sometimes kills its hosts, usually it does little more than stunt their growth.
The plant is best known as a hanging Christmas decoration under which men and women are obliged to kiss—a ritual that may owe its origins to mistletoe's long association with aphrodisiacs.
But mistletoe is also a key player in myths such as the death of the Norse god Baldur, and has symbolic importance in many other cultures.
Ancient Britain's Druids may have used the plant in their winter solstice ceremonies, for instance, since mistletoe remains growing and green around that time when most other plants appear lifeless, lending the plant a mystical aura.
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