The Truth About Mistletoe -- A Yuletide Story Touching On Vikings, Spotted Owls And Flaming Forests

NEWSPAPERS are haunted by holidays.

The calendar dictates a turning-over of composted stories like a spade in last year's garden: pumpkins, fireworks, colored eggs, tinsel. Over and over and over again. Editors scavenge for a new twist each Thanksgiving and Memorial Day. For cub reporters, the holiday story is a trial by fire.

This series called "Our Northwest" has no intention of shrinking from the Yuletide challenge - even if it is the 1,999th Christmas, and counting. The magazine in your hands planned with utter sincerity to contribute to Christmas cheer with a merry and modest tale on mistletoe, that bright, berried evergreen of kisses and reconciliation.

There's just one problem.

It seems Northwest mistletoe is not the kind you kiss under. In fact, it's an odd-looking dwarf, a parasite, a leech. It attacks its prey like an invading pod from outer space, drinks its lifeblood like a glutton, causes a cancer-like explosion of misshapen limbs called a "witches' broom," stunts growth, fans forest fires, and, if otherwise unchecked, brings to Douglas fir, hemlock and pine a long, abject and disfiguring death.

One week before Christmas, I unwittingly chose as a natural history subject the Blair Witch of the Northwest woods: difficult to see but causing the foresters who hunt it to sometimes use Very Bad Words.

My editor was appalled. "What have you got for Valentine's Day?" she moaned.

But wait! Research by scientists the past two decades has

started to turn the dwarf mistletoe story around. It turns out some of the bad things it does are actually good things for spotted owls, marbled murrelets, Western larch, flying squirrels and hundreds of other species. Mistletoe has a vital ecological function. Its reputation is being resurrected!

"That's Easter, you dope."

OK, but mistletoe is also a tale of inter-dependence and connection and belonging and the wondrous variety of living things: There's beauty in its beastliness. Mistletoe is one of the best examples around of just how complex, surprising and ingenious life is. This is a plant that belongs with Christmas after all!

Sort of.

LIKE MANY Christmas traditions, the one involving mistletoe has pagan roots. In the brown deciduous forests of pre-Christian Europe, Viscus album mistletoe was a symbol of enduring life during a long, cold winter. Magically evergreen and growing in the crown of oaks and elms without roots or soil, it was a bright spot on a drab day, cherished by both druid priests and the Martha Stewarts of neolithic chic.

Mistletoe symbolized healing, fertility and life after death. The Celts hung sprigs to welcome the new year and ward off evil. It was placed over cradles so babies wouldn't be stolen by fairies. Despite the fact its berries are toxic, the plant was used as a sedative, diuretic and to treat various ailments.

The kissing part got its start from smooching Viking warriors. This is not exactly a G-rated Christmas image, either, but then myth seldom is. Norse legend has it that Baldur, nicest and easiest-going of all the gods, had a dream about his own death and was subsequently shielded by his mother Frigg. She demanded an oath from all things - of earth, water and fire - that they not harm him.

In other words, nothing could touch him. His fellow gods threw everything they could think of - rocks, spears, snowballs, horned helmets - but Baldur had more Teflon than Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton combined. He came through cheerful and unscathed.

Mistletoe, a parasite that grew without roots high in trees, was not of the earth, however. The nasty and jealous god Loki fashioned a missile from it and tricked the blind god Hod into hurling it at Baldur. The gentle god died from silly spite, and the plant that killed him subsequently became a symbol of peace: Vikings who met beneath it were supposed to put aside their weapons and embrace, kiss and generally make up.

A racier Danish version of the Baldur story includes lust, murder, rape and revenge but we'll stick with the Norwegian version. This is Christmas.

Daffy Danes.

By the 17th century the English had converted this tradition into an excuse to kiss pretty maidens. A berry was plucked with each lass kissed under the mistletoe, and the belief was that any couple that so kissed would eventually marry.

EUROPEAN MISTLETOE is a rather pretty plant 2 to 3 feet long - green, shiny, with bright white berries. Its North American counterpart, Phoradendron flavescens, grows as far north as Southern Oregon. It is commercially harvested by cherry picker in Texas and is plucked by Boy Scout troops as a fund raiser in California. We moderns also make do with a plastic facsimile.

Famed horticulturist Luther Burbank accidentally introduced the European parasite to the Sonoma area when importing trees. Despite the damage it can cause, locals liked it so much that they stopped a U.S. Forest Service campaign to eradicate it.

Crazy Californians.

The six species of mistletoe in Washington are in a group called Arceuthobium and grow just 1 to 4 inches high. They infect about 10 percent of conifers in Western Washington and 41 percent east of the Cascades, and drain so many nutrients from the host tree that they can leave them stunted, misshapen and susceptible to disease, insects and fire.

At first glance, dwarf mistletoe seems a plant more appropriate for Halloween than Christmas. While Christmas mistletoe is spread by birds eating its berries and depositing the indigestible seeds, Northwest mistletoe's spread is reminiscent of those science fiction movies like "Alien." It builds pressure in its seed pods like a swelling water balloon. When the pod bursts, the seed is ejected at speeds up to 60 mph, flying up to 50 feet to land on a neighboring branch.

This bombardment occurs about September. The seeds have a sticky coating called viscin that glues them to the needle bough they land on. When fall rains come, the glue turns slippery and the seeds insidiously slide down the branch until they lodge on bark at the base of a shoot. There they lurk until spring, using a kind of photosynthesis to tide them over with nutrients until they can begin the real invasion.

As the forest warms, the seed erupts and grows toward the dimmer light of the host surface, regardless of the pull of gravity. A rounded structure called a "holdfast" anchors the mistletoe to its chosen point of penetration and then a "penetration wedge" emerges from this to drill into the bark. A root-like system of tendrils called "sinkers" radiates under the branch skin and begins robbing the tree of its nutrients. So greedy is the mistletoe that it will drain its host of water and carbohydrates needed elsewhere, stunting its growth.

First the branch swells as the mistletoe drinks. Then the rush of tree nutrients to the invaded spot causes a brush-like thicket of branches to sprout that form a cluster called witches' broom, sort of like Julia Roberts on a bad hair day.

These brooms often die and dry prematurely, turning into bundles of kindling. During a forest fire they can carry the flames into the crowns of trees like gasolined cotton. Wind storms break the brooms off and they pile up at a tree base, inviting fire.

Insects, fungi and disease attack the weakened tree but it can limp along for decades. The mistletoe, meanwhile, puts out its first shoots about three years after invading. By the spring of the fifth year the female and male mistletoe plants are sexually mature enough to flower (they have nectar) and be fertilized by insects and wind. In about year six the fertilized pod swells again to eject its seed. And the cycle begins all over again.

On an infected Ponderosa pine, mistletoe can be firing off an average of 32,000 seeds per year. To any self-respecting forester, cute little dwarf mistletoe was a combination of Machine Gun Kelly, welfare bum and space alien. One of the justifications for clear-cutting - mowing 'em all down - was that you killed the mistletoe with it.

Wacky Washingtonians.

LED BY A pioneering mistletoe enthusiast named Frank Hawksworth at Colorado State, scientists began taking another look in the 1970s.

Jim Hadfield, a forest pathologist in Wenatchee, has been studying mistletoe for 28 years and has seen a revolution in attitudes toward the plant. He's gone from simply trying to stamp it out to preserving it in certain forest plots. "There are now a number of places where we retain dwarf-mistletoe-infected trees because it serves as wildlife habitat," he explained.

Does it ever. Witches' brooms are the nesting sites for up to 95 percent of the spotted owls east of the Cascades. On the west side, they are equally favored by the endangered marbled murrelet, a small seabird that nests in old-growth forests. Hawks love them. Flying squirrels, red squirrels and pine martens make a home there, too. Porcupines feed on them.

Bob Tinnin, a biologist at Portland State University, said that ecologists consistently find more animal species in mistletoe-infested forests than those without. Sparrows, grouse, chickadees, doves, robins, pigeons and grosbeaks eat mistletoe fruit and the insects attracted to the parasite.

Clyde Calvin, his Portland State colleague, said more than 100 species of moth and butterfly feed on mistletoe. Some larvae will eat nothing but. And some birds thrive on those larvae.

The city of Mercer Island has used mistletoe invasion as an excuse to create dead snag trees in its parks. "Half of all forest wildlife requires standing dead trees or logs for at least part of its wildlife cycle," said parks employee Brian Gilles.

Even the fire story turns out to be more complicated than it first appears, said Bob Mathiasen, an ecologist at Northern Arizona University. Artificial suppression of fire has made a mess of forests in the western United States, where forests once had evolved to adapt to frequent flames. Fires thin forests, recycle nutrients and keep insects in check and so on. Mistletoe invited fire and fire kept a lid on mistletoe, maintaining a balance in which species thrived.

Western larch, the orange-needled conifer seen east of the Cascades, relied on fallen witches' brooms to sustain itself. The dead, resin-filled branches helped spread ground fires that didn't kill fire-resistant larch but weeded out competing species.

Mistletoe's partnership with other species makes sense, of course. The plant is believed to have invaded the Western Hemisphere from Asia about 25 million years ago, and has co-existed ever since. Its infection rate was low and forests thrived until we came along. Fire suppression made it explode in numbers.

Mistletoe is still a problem for tree farmers. Forestry reforms that leave trees in and around clear-cuts to save wildlife also leave mistletoe that can infect replantings and stunt the growth of crops of trees. The parasite remains one of the arguments used to defend clear-cutting.

Accordingly, Simon Shamoun of the Canadian Forest Service in Victoria is doing research to fight parasite with parasite. At least two kinds of fungi, collatoxrichum geleosporioides and nectria neomarcostroa, prevent it from seeding or sprouting.

"My philosophy is not to eradicate but to treat," Shamoun explained. The fungi can be grown in culture and sprayed onto infected trees next to replanting areas.

SO HERE WE HAVE your classic Christmas story, as heart-warming as the Grinch or Scrooge. Mistletoe turns out to be not such a bad fellow after all. And instead of everyone dying in the end, like Halloween, we fog in some fungi and everyone gets along in the end. Maybe.

Certainly mistletoe is a symbol not just of reconciliation and affection but of the danger of making snap judgments here in our Northwest. Species, like people, can sometimes turn out to be better and more useful than they first seem. Mistletoe. Fungus. Spotted owls. We eradicate at our peril.

It's enough to make you want to pucker up and kiss someone.

Which leaves just one problem. What do we write about next Christmas?

William Dietrich, author and former Seattle Times reporter, writes Our Northwest for Pacific Northwest magazine. Paul Schmid is a Times news artist. Harley Soltes is a Times staff photographer.