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Harvesting Mistletoe: Gunfire Gets The Job Done

Steven Ginsberg
The Record, Bergen County, New Jersey
December 21, 2001
 
Out in the boggy Virginia forest, the hunter quietly stalks. He circles
a particular tree a few times, then picks his spot and lifts his 20-
gauge shotgun.

BLAM!

His prey falls to the ground in an inglorious whir: Another sprig of mistletoe bites the dust.



Those cute little wonders of nature, those totems of romanticism that turn Scrooges into smoochers during the holiday season, often find their way to doorways by first getting themselves blasted out of treetops.

Mistletoe shooting has a long tradition in the southeastern United States. Often it's the best way to harvest the plant.

That's because mistletoe generally attaches itself to the top limbs of hardwood trees, making it virtually impossible to grab by hand. It's not exactly hunting grizzlies, but it presents its own challenges.

Challenges of Mistletoe Hunting

"There's got to be an easier way," said a frustrated Spencer Nottingham one day last week after shooting into a tree for the better part of an hour, bagging a couple of clumps but mostly blowing sprigs to smithereens.

Only 19 years old, Nottingham is a four-year participant in the hunt, having set out that first year to collect mistletoe for his grandfather's house. Others started asking Nottingham to bag them some, too. Now he's set his sights on a bushel's worth to sell to a nursery on the Chesapeake's Eastern Shore.

On this afternoon, one piece in particular is driving him crazy.

It's waaay, waaay up there. He throws a piece of wood at it. Then another. He circles a few times, then heaves a broken branch skyward. He climbs an adjacent tree and attempts to knock the pesky clump down, but it refuses to yield.

Time to get out the shotgun. BLAM! BLAM!

Not that this is the kind of hunting challenge Nottingham dreams about. He prefers deer and duck. But "it's just fun going in the woods," so if somebody asks him to shoot them a little mistletoe, he's happy to oblige.

After all, mistletoe is a parasite.

Plucking, Climbing, Shooting

Here's the ugly truth: Mistletoe digs through tree bark to suck out sap, leeching water and nutrients from its host. Sometimes it kills its host. Hunters have been known to shoot it to save a tree.

The mistletoe Americans are familiar with, Phoradendron serotinum, grows primarily in the Southeast and as far west as Texas and Oklahoma.

In swamps, it can be plucked off low-hanging branches by hand.

Elsewhere, it can sometimes be taken by ladder or by climbing a tree.

As mistletoe's popularity surged, it gave rise to commercial growers. But many farmers markets, roadside stands, and nurseries still rely on the old-fashioned method of shooting it down.

Blowing it out of the sky is "the West Virginia way," said Charlie Spencer, a state forestry specialist who's hunted mistletoe for years.

"A shotgun is just the most effective way to get it out."

Historical Symbolism

The ancient Druids may have been the first to consider mistletoe sacred, because "when everything else turns brown and drops its leaves, mistletoe stays green," said Brian Geils of the Rocky Mountain Research Station in Flagstaff, Arizona.

The Druids believed it could cure illness, ward off poisons, counteract witchcraft, and ensure fertility. It was also an early version of the peace pipe: When enemies met under mistletoe in the forest, they had to lay down their arms and observe a truce until the next day.

For such a noble and storied specimen to be blasted from trees is a near sacrilege to people such as Geils, who believes "the right way to collect mistletoe is with a golden sickle" the way the Druids did, he said.

It's the state flower of Oklahoma, where Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society, once hunted it by throwing rocks. "I couldn't afford shotgun shells," he said.

Blackburn said mistletoe was first revered in Oklahoma for the same reason it enchanted the Druids: Almost all of the state's trees are deciduous, so mistletoe is one of the few things that remain colorful when the weather turns cold.

The plant took on near-mythical status during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression eras, becoming a symbol of tenacity as it stubbornly thrived.

"It was fondly remembered by our pioneers as a symbol of family, remembrance, Christmastime, and resilience," Blackburn said. "People are proud of that resilience."

Copyright 2001 The Record, Bergen County, New Jersey
 

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