Mistletoe is often a symbol of Christmas tradition in the western world. The main tradition is that when a couple meets under the mistletoe, they’re supposed to kiss. The Druids also thought the plant was a symbol of good luck and good health and often used it in medicines. It’s also a common decoration at Christmas time. But, mistletoe is an important plant in California and even in San Diego where several native varieties grow as well. European mistletoe is also present in California in isolated areas.
Mistletoe is actually a partially parasitic plant that is often considered a pest. It usually feeds off trees and shrubs by stealing nutrients and water from the host. However, it does produce its own food through photosynthesis. Many people don’t like it in their garden because they sometimes can severely injure or kill a plant. However, mistletoe is an extremely important plant in the natural world and is considered a keystone plant in an ecosystem. In San Diego, they mostly feed off oak trees, though other trees can be hosts.
Many animals and birds in the San Diego area rely on the mistletoe for food and shelter. A small, silky bird that frequents the San Diego area, the phainopepla, relies on the berries the plants produce. In fact, it may be completely dependent on the plant for food during the winter months. Other birds and animals also use the berries as food or the plant as nesting material and shelter. Studies have shown that a larger variety of birds can be found in habitats that contain mistletoe than those that don't. Mammals such as deer and even domestic cattle often eat the leaves and berries of the mistletoe plant.
Mistletoe is also said to have some medicinal properties and some people swear it can help with major diseases such as cancer, though there has been little clinical proof that it has any effect. It has also been used in traditional European medicine for various ailments such as hypertension, epilepsy, and arthritis. Certain varieties of mistletoe can be poisonous and, if taken internally, can result in severe illness or death. Please contact your health professional before ingesting any type of mistletoe variety.