For an illustrated version, see pages 15-16 in The Environmentor, vol. 6, no. 4.
At this time of year, when we long for spring but the trees are still bare, it's easy to see that some trees have strange clumps of greenery in their branches: mistletoe. In old times those clumps were a promise that green spring would come again.
There's a story that mistletoe became Oklahoma's “state flower” in February of 1893, when the Territorial Legislature met for the second time. John A. Wimberley, the youngest member of the House of Representatives, had heard that other states had floral emblems. Although Oklahoma was not yet a state, he thought we should have a state flower too.
His fellow legislators suggested everything from daisies and forget-me-nots to roses. But Rep. Wemberly remembered that during the previous hard winter, when many settlers had died, mourning families had had no flowers for the graves. All they could find was mistletoe, for at least a bit of green.
So in memory of the lost settlers, mistletoe was voted our offical “flower.” The Oklahoma Rose became our state flower in 2004, but mistletoe is still our “state floral emblem.”
Mistletoe's green leaves may be a promise of spring for us, but it can threaten the trees it grows on.
Oklahoma has several native species of mistletoe. Different sources identify Phoradendron serotinum, P. leucarpum, or P. flavescensis as our emblem.
The genus name Phoradendron means “tree thief” and with good reason! Ancient European peoples thought that the green mistletoe was preserving the energy of the tree through the winter, saving it for spring. But in fact mistletoe steals from a tree. Its green leaves can make most of its own food by photosynthesis, but it takes its water and minerals from its host, burrowing into the branches with root-like haustoria. It is a “hemi-parasite.”
Many kinds of birds can eat mistletoe's white berries. Wiping the sticky seeds off their bills onto the bark of the same tree or the next one they visit, they spread the plant. Of course their droppings spread the seeds too. In fact the name “mistletoe” comes from old words meaning “bird droppings.”
The “tree thief” can weaken its host's branches. And in an Oklahoma ice storm, its extra leaf surface can catch so much ice that branches break under the weight. You may see some trees so infested with mistletoe that they look like evergreens in winter!
Oklahoma lore: http://newsok.com/article/3683115 quotes The Oklahoman (April 19, 1925)
For Nordic mythology, see http://www.theholidayspot.com/christmas/history/mistletoe.htm