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.”
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
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,”
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