Specimens don’t get much more festive than this! This mistletoe specimen (Viscum album) was purchased at a Pittsburgh market on Christmas Eve 1883 by John A. Shafer, who would become the museum’s first botany curator 16 years later. Mistletoes refer to many species in the genus Viscum, but traditionally referred to a species native to Europe, Viscum album. European mistletoe has a deep rooted cultural history, dating back to as early as ancient Greece and remains a well-known holiday decoration today.
Did you know that mistletoes are parasitic plants? Mistletoes grow on the branches of trees (especially oaks), with specialized roots (called “haustorium”) that penetrate the host tree to obtain water and nutrients. Technically, most mistletoes are hemi-parasites, as they do have green leaves capable of photosynthesizing to some degree. How do they germinate high up on the branches of trees? They have evolved to produce berries which birds ingest, fly around, land on another branch, and poop a viable mistletoe seeds. Without the assistance of birds, the seeds would likely just fall to the ground.
Mistletoes are native to the United States, too. American mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum) is native to southeastern states. The species has been harvested and sold in the United States in Christmas traditions, similar to European mistletoe. The specimen pictured below was collected in South Carolina in 1968, found attached to several oak species.
Botanists at Carnegie Museum of Natural History share pieces of the herbarium’s historical hidden collection on the dates they were discovered or collected. Check back for more!