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Holiday plants flourish wild in Illinois

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[DEC. 14, 2004]  SPRINGFIELD -- Hikers in Illinois woods may discover two festive plants growing wild: mistletoe and the Christmas fern. Both plants are native to Illinois and were cherished by early pioneers because they retain their green color year-round. The plants remain part of modern-day holiday tradition.

"Early settlers couldn't go to a greenhouse like you or I can today," said Ben Dolbeare, coordinator of exotic species for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. "They would bring these two types of plants into their cabins to decorate. The Christmas fern got its name because of its popularity hundreds of years ago in December."

The Christmas fern flourishes statewide and can be found in virtually any wooded area. It grows up to 2 feet tall in clumps in timber.

Mistletoe is most common in the southern sixth of Illinois, although it can also be spotted as far north in the state as Springfield. Mistletoe grows in trees, including oak, elm, cottonwood and sycamore. The growth is approximately the size of a basketball, with leaves the shape of teaspoons and small green berries.

While neither plant is gathered for commercial purposes in Illinois, Dolbeare says they also are not considered noxious weeds.

Mistletoe is classified as a half-parasite. It doesn't grow in dirt but latches onto the bark of trees, shooting roots into the tree trunk and using nutrients from the tree itself for survival. It also conducts photosynthesis through its leaves.

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The mystique of mistletoe can be traced to the 1500s in England. Because the mistletoe grew on the side of trees rather than the ground, it was believed to have mystical powers. It was thought to improve fertility and to be an aphrodisiac. It was also hung outside homes to keep evil spirits away.

Over the centuries, mistletoe also played a role in war. In battle, warriors would hold up mistletoe to bring a temporary halt to hostilities.

The tradition of kissing under mistletoe began in the 1700s, when mistletoe was held over fighting spouses to encourage them to kiss and make up.

"These two plants are worth watching for when you hike this time of year," Dolbeare said. "Even for the person growing trees for timber, there's no reason to get rid of either the mistletoe or the Christmas fern. But remember, if you're in a state park, leave it growing, because it's prohibited to carry anything from the park."

[Illinois Department of Natural Resources news release]

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