Helen Thompson characterizes the holiday plant as “basically a vampire,” calling it “a parasite that spends its days sucking the ‘lifeforce’ from trees round the globe”:
Mistletoe’s parasitism starts with poop and exploding berries. Mistletoe bushes clump on branches like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. Their parasitism is airborne. Birds eat their berries, which are coated in gluey material called viscin. The birds poop all over the forest, and thanks to the viscin, the mistletoe seeds in said poop stick to branches. Once firmly attached to the branch, mistletoe sprouts and drills down into the branch until it reaches the tree’s veins. It sticks a haustorium (basically a straw) in and sips the tree’s mineral and water cocktail.
Another group of mistletoes, dwarf mistletoes, does things a bit differently. In a dramatic twist on mistletoe reproduction, their seeds explode, literally. The blast zone can reach up to 15 feet. Seeds stick to saplings and wedge themselves into the tree’s innards, infecting the entire tree, and sprouting sometimes years later. These guys are full parasites, taking sugar, water, and minerals from the tree. “Dwarf mistletoe is freaky, freaky, freaky stuff,” says David Watson, an ecologist at Charles Sturt University in Australia. “Its [shoots] look like miniature asparagus.”
Eventually, the mistletoe bush grows, blooms, and forms berries, and the cycle begins anew.
For a more festive take on the plant, check out the below Broad City webisode, which follows Abbi’s pursuit of her first below-the-mistletoe kiss: