Out of habit, I suppose, my feet found the quiet spots. The spots hard, bare, frozen, and/or vacant of the crisp, tattletale leaves of winter. The two-tracked trails of the Hardware River Wildlife Management Area makes such progress easy, and so I slipped relatively undetected, shotgun in tote, towards an ancient oak tree growing in the interior of the property, like I had dozens of times before after bushytails in my home county.
Ali was behind me, also moving quietly, eyes scanning the treetops. I’d told her about the oak tree and what it held. She wanted to go along for the harvest, to be a part of the process.
A familiar bend in the trail took me back to the day I discovered the massive oak on a squirrel hunt with my dad. We spotted what we thought was a gray frozen in fear along one of its giant branches, and watched it for some time before glassing it and ruling it just a knot in the grain.
Ali and I slipped off the trail and into the woods, towards the disproportionately large trunk, eyes scanning its crown. Then we saw it, in one of the highest branches, where it had been for as long as I’d been hunting those woods. I circled the trunk, looking for a clear shot. When I had it, I raised my 20 gauge. Ali covered her ears, and I fired.
Not a bushy-tailed gray, but a spray of herbaceous sprigs and berries came tumbling down through the branches to settle in the crunchy leaves below. The first bunch of mistletoe of the season had bit the dust.
A Sacred Parasite
Oak mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum), that cultural staple of our Christmas tradition that does its best to sow scandal into our Christmas parties, grows native in the eastern and central United States. It’s an evergreen shrub that sprouts white berries (despite popular culture often depicting them as red), and usually grows in round, relatively dense clumps in the crowns of trees. In fact, all mistletoe species are parasitic, making their living by leaching water and inorganic nutrients from the branches they grow on. The genus name, Phoradendron, even loosely translates to “tree thief” in Greek. Romantic, right?
While it’s a bit of a mystery why and how mistletoe came to be symbolic of holiday smooches, it has long been revered as a special plant for its ability to remain lush and green, even as the hardwoods it grows on turn brown and dormant.
Certainly, the great purple hairstreak (Atlides halesus), a butterfly species native to the region, would agree. Oak mistletoe is the sole host plant for caterpillars of this species in the butterfly’s southeastern range. Without it, the species’ geographical distribution would be reduced by more than half.
The ancient Druids believed that mistletoe could stave off disease, increase fertility in people and animals, bring good luck, and even ward off witches. If a plant was found growing in an oak tree, they would harvest it with a golden sickle and sacrifice a white ox to consecrate the event, never letting the plant touch the ground to protect its magical properties. They respected the plant so much that, if two enemies met under mistletoe, they would lay down their weapons, exchange pleasantries, and declare a truce until the following day.
Perhaps this practice, along with the air of renewal that it carries as an evergreen, is the reason for mistletoe’s place in our modern traditions. Whatever the reason, mistletoe remains an important part of our culture.
Despite the Druids’ ancient method, mistletoe hunting via shotgun is a long-held tradition in the southeast. Most individuals simply grow too high in trees to be easily harvested by hand, and its presence is often discovered by shotgun-toting hunters, anyway. In fact, I’ve known a few hunters and habitat managers to shoot mistletoe to save the tree that it’s parasitizing, as it inevitably will kill its host tree.
Otherwise, it’s a cheery tradition that helps get one into the holiday spirit, a fascinating lesson in ancient and modern culture, and an excuse to take a break from the deer stand and spend some quality time in the outdoors with family and friends that might not come along on a game hunt.
Still, had a land- and time-lost Druid been huddled confused in the creekbottom where the acorns of our great Hardware River oak collect, witnessing my scattergun reports aimed at the tangle of yellow-green waxy leaves in the canopy, it might have been interpreted as an act of outright sacrilege—war, even. And it would have been my exclusive error for blasting the only thing standing in his way with #6 shot.
Happy hunting, merry Christmas, and happy New Year!
*Originally published in The Rural Virginian