Most of us are familiar with mistletoe as a holiday decoration. But this evergreen has been used for cultural and medicinal purposes for centuries by many Europeans, who brought these practices with them when they emigrated to the New World.

This evergreen does not grow in soil but on the tops of tree branches. It is hemiparasitic, which means the plant absorbs some of its food from tree sap through specialized roots called haustoria.

There are two broad groups, or genera, of mistletoe. Plants in the genus Phoradendron grow on the branches of deciduous (leaf-dropping) trees such as oaks, gums, elms and maples. Dwarf mistletoes, genus Arceuthobium, feed on conifers (cone-bearing trees). North America supports many species of mistletoe including one native to the East Coast, Phoradendron leucarpum, more commonly known as oak mistletoe.

Mistletoe has a well-developed shoot, jointed stems and small, three-lobed white flowers. Dark green, leathery leaves and tiny white berries add to its holiday appeal. Oak mistletoe is distributed throughout the Southeast from southern Ohio, Illinois and Kansas, east to New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and south to Florida and eastern Texas.

The scientific name, Phoradendron, comes from the Greek words phor and dendron, meaning tree thief. But not all mistletoes deserve this reputation. Oak mistletoe does photosynthesize its own food and gets only water and minerals from the host tree, but little carbon. Though this mistletoe may slow the growth of tree branches, it does not permanently damage its host.

Mistletoe contains a systemic poison that can be fatal to people and pets. Even so, Native Americans and Europeans have used mistletoe for medicinal purposes. While mistletoe berries are poisonous for people, they are relished by cedar waxwings and other songbirds.

Birds often wipe the seeds off their beaks and onto other branches, helping the plants to spread. Seeds are also deposited by bird droppings, particularly waxwing droppings. Cedar waxwings, like many fruit-eating or nectar-eating birds, have nonmuscular stomachs that allow seeds to pass through without being ground.

The small, soft seeds of mistletoe berries lack a seed coat. They are protected from a bird’s digestive juices by a viscid layer containing chemicals that speed the seed through the digestive system. This same layer helps deposited seeds to stick to limbs and twigs of a host plant

Poisonous and parasitic, mistletoe seems an odd choice as a symbol for winter holidays. This may be due to the mistletoe’s winter flowers and berries, which manifest life when most other plants were bare.

Mistletoe is one of many evergreens that brighten the winter landscape and are invaluable to wildlife for food and cover.

Pines, spruces and firs provide food for birds like the Carolina chickadee, cedar waxwing, evening grosbeak, American goldfinch, dark-eyed junco, blue jay, rufous-sided towhee, house finch, purple finch, white-breasted nuthatch and Eastern meadowlark. White-tailed deer, chipmunks and gray squirrel feast on seeds and needles.

Hollies provide excellent shelter for winter wildlife. Their fruit is eaten by birds like the common flicker, gray catbird, mourning dove, northern bobwhite and mockingbird. Raccoons and white-footed mice also consume the berries, while white-tailed deer may graze on the leaves and twigs.

Junipers and eastern red cedars are particularly attractive to cedar waxwings, purple finches and eastern mockingbirds.

Hemlocks give protection to black-capped chickadees, Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, cardinals and dark-eyed juncos.

The waxy fruit of common wax myrtle is favored by tufted titmice, common flickers, finches, white-eyed vireos, black-capped chickadees, Carolina chickadees, gray catbirds and rufous-sided towhees.

Green up your winter yard

Now that the blaze of autumn has been muted to grays and browns, look at your yard. Could it use some evergreens to brighten it up and attract wildlife? Here are some native species to consider:

Trees

American Holly (Ilex opaca)
Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis)
Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana)
Loblolly Pine (Pinus taeda)
Virginia Pine (Pinus virginiana)
White Pine (Pinus strobus)

Shrubs

Great Rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum)
Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia)
Wax Myrtle (Myrica cerifera)
Inkberry (Ilex glabra)

Ground Covers

Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens)
Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens)