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The Fun of Stalking Mistletoe in San Diego

December 19, 1987|ALAN RUSSELL | Alan Russell of Del Mar is a writer and a Canyoneer-in-training

PINE VALLEY — "Christmas in San Diego?" asked one of my Eastern friends a few years ago. "Why, that's a contradiction in terms."

Chauvinism prompted me to argue, but my heart wasn't in the contest. San Diegans aren't used to having to defend their homestead. We characteristically yawn at far-off blizzards, and have a studied ennui about another beautiful day in paradise. But in our heart of hearts we know that when it comes to the holidays, we're lacking. Santa on a surfboard just doesn't make it.

But finally I've found a suitable holiday tradition for San Diegans. And we don't even have to suffer frostbite for it.

Mistletoe gathering might not be Paul Bunyan work, but chopping down Christmas trees in this area is not feasible for most while gathering mistletoe is.

Worldwide, there are more than 1,000 species of mistletoe, but San Diego Natural History Museum botanist Geoffrey Levin said only five species are found locally.

"Mistletoe is very widespread in East and North County," he said. He cited Palomar Mountain, Laguna Mountain and the Cuyamaca area as having abundant mistletoe, but added that you can find it throughout the county.

Although mistletoe is commonly found on oak trees, Levin said that locally it also grows on cottonwoods, sycamores, cedars, junipers and various desert shrubs in the pea family.

Having never searched for mistletoe before, I went out with a group of experienced hunters. The Canyoneers, outdoor docents for the Natural History Museum, have been going on mistletoe quests for several years. Ostensibly, they gather the shrub to collect funds for the museum, selling the mistletoe at the annual Christmas on the Prado celebration, but there was no hint of drudgery on the faces of the 12 Canyoneers gathered recently at a private ranch in Pine Valley.

The Search Was Fun

When Alan Marshall, director of this year's hunt, announced that it was time for work, he might just as well have said, "Time for recess."

Several of us immediately took to the trees. I quickly discovered that the first rule of etiquette at a mistletoe gathering party is that decorum is not observed. Only fun. Emily Post might not have approved, but I wonder whether she thought very much of mistletoe anyway.

If any white-haired woman is looking for an excuse to climb a tree, you need only go on a mistletoe hunt. One senior lady traversed higher up than the younger men. Supplying fodder for kisses is heady work.

Winter is a good time to hunt the shrub because it remains green throughout the year and often stands out on its host tree, which has lost its leaves or changed colors.

The oak tree we selected to denude didn't seem to mind its trim. Perhaps that's because mistletoe is semiparasitic. Its leaves contain chlorophyll and even undergo a limited form of photosynthesis, but it does draw water and nutrients from its host through a modified root called a haustorium.

Luckily, though, mistletoe rarely causes permanent damage to its host.

The Canyoneers, reverential about nature, removed only the mistletoe itself--and the branch of one tree loaded with it. For several minutes the noise of modern man marred the bucolic setting, but a little bit of buzz saw produced a lot of mistletoe.

"How much mistletoe could a Canyoneer chuck if a Canyoneer could chuck mistletoe?" asked one Canyoneer who pretended to be woebegone at all the work waiting at his feet. But many hands working in assembly-line fashion helped keep the work light. Some of us cut, some gathered, and some bound the springs with bright ribbons and placed them in bags. And all of us laughed.

"This is enough to make me a pantheist!" said my wife, Laura, while sitting at a picnic table and trying to bag mistletoe piled up to her neck.

Sacred to Druids

Her comment was unwitting, but appropriate. Pliny said the Druids had a word for mistletoe, which, in their language, meant "heal all." They thought it sacred, and attributed many virtues to it, especially when it was found growing on oak trees. It was often used in sacrificial ceremonies, where their priests, robed in white, would climb a tree and cut off the mistletoe with a golden sickle.

When the Canyoneers retreated from the oak tree, a few birds dared return. Mistletoe does more than freeload. During winter, it's an important source of food for birds, especially songbirds. Mistletoe sports white, pulpy berries on which birds feed. The birds in turn distribute the mistletoe seeds in both their droppings and by wiping the sticky seeds from their beak on some handy tree branch. Sometimes it takes some vigorous bill-scraping to unleash the gummy hitchhiker, but that usually ensures the seed an ideal resting spot in the bark or crevice of a tree.

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