"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
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."
Department of Natural Resources news release]