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KuijtMistletoe Man
For a UVic botanist, mistletoe’s allure extends far beyond a playful Christmas legend

For most of us, mistletoe is something we forget about once Christmas is over. Not for UVic adjunct professor Dr. Job Kuijt, who wants the world to know that there’s a lot more to mistletoe than standing under it, kissing.

Kuijt should know. The botanist has spent the last half century studying the legendary plant and is considered the world expert on mistletoes of North, South and Central America. Some of his friends call him the Mistletoe Man. “I’m just enchanted by them,” he admits. “They’re unusually successful and sophisticated plants.”

There are at least 2,000 species of mistletoe around the world, and Kuijt has seen many of them. They range in size from the 10-metre high West Australian Christmas tree (a misnomer) to a tiny dwarf mistletoe in the Himalayas, which sends out shoots only 2–3 millimetres long.

The species most people are familiar with is the European mistletoe, Viscum album, famous for its white berries and green foliage in winter. Other than that, it looks pretty ordinary. But don’t be fooled. Like all mistletoes it harbours a dark little secret—it’s a parasite, growing on the branches of host trees and sending shoots into the bark to steal nutrients.

“To many people, a parasite might sound scary,” says Kuijt. “But to biologists, a parasite is a very special thing. It’s inherently fascinating.”

Over the course of his career, Kuijt has focused on mistletoe biodiversity in the Americas, as well as microscopic investigations into how the parasite and host interlock. In the process, he’s published about 150 scientific papers and a general text on parasitic plants, complete with line drawings. He has about 10,000 preserved specimens in his small UVic lab. And he’s discovered and described about 250 new mistletoe species.

Not that mistletoe biology is a crowded field. There used to be four researchers worldwide. Two recently retired. Kuijt is 72, but has no plans to stop anytime soon. “I’m too enthralled,” he grins. “It helps that I’m basically the only one doing this, because I don’t like competition, unless it’s with myself.”

MistletoeEach time Christmas rolls around, Kuijt braces himself for the inevitable jokes about mistletoe and kissing. The origin of the tradition is unknown, although it seems to be Anglo-Saxon and not much older than 200 years. But mistletoe’s mystique goes back much further than that—it was venerated by ancient peoples as a symbol of everlasting life, a protectant, a source of medicinal powers, and even an aphrodisiac.

Why such a place of honour? “Mistletoe plants are green balls of life in a leafless tree in mid-winter,” explains Kuijt. “But most significantly, the mistletoe has no contact with the vile earth. That’s probably why the Druids considered it divine, especially when it grew on oak, their sacred plant.”

But don’t bother looking for the mistletoe of legend in B.C. The sprigs sold in flower stores at Christmas-time are from a southeastern U.S. variety. And B.C.’s three native species are all dwarf mistletoes that most of us would never notice.“They’re not leafy, they have tiny leaf scales and they look like lichen,” says Kuijt. They’re also serious forest pests, attacking mainly pine and hemlock.

And here’s some mistletoe trivia with a local twist: European mistletoe was introduced into two locations in North America. One was in Santa Rosa, California, where it has spread out of control and is now a pest. The second was in Victoria around 1945 when a World War II veteran likely returned with some berries.

“One patch grew off Mackenzie Road until it was destroyed by a housing development several years ago,” says Kuijt. “The other still exists on some old apple trees, but for reasons we can’t explain, hasn’t spread and isn’t likely to.” He won’t disclose the location, to protect the mistletoe from sample-seekers.

Kuijt is equally protective of the tropical species that he studies. “Some of them are the most gloriously beautiful plants you can imagine, with masses of brilliant blooms,” he says. “But if it’s difficult enough to convince governments to save trees, how much more difficult is it to save the parasites of those trees. Who’s going to speak up for a parasite?”

For now, UVic’s “Mistletoe Man,” that’s who.

 

Photo captions: Above, Kuijt with a preserved sample of European mistletoe (Valerie Shore photo). Below, the tiny Douglas-fir dwarf mistletoe, one of three mistletoe species found in B.C., is visible as knobby shoots among the needles (David Lye photo).