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Mistletoe shortage means kissing tradition goodbye

New York Times News Service
Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 01:01 PM

The tree is glittering in the living room, and garlands are plentiful throughout the house. But people searching for another holiday standard, mistletoe, will be hard pressed this year to find a decent-looking sprig, if they're able to find any at all.

There are many species of mistletoe. But the kissing kind that is native to the United States, a semiparasitic plant that grows wild in certain parts of the country, is scarce this year because of a relentless drought in Texas and adverse weather elsewhere.

The branches normally have smooth green leaves and small white berries, but in New York City, the few branches that arrived are so anemic that they just weren't worth the high price tag, many sellers say.

Jena Min, 36, the owner of a Brooklyn boutique and gallery called Condemned to Be Free, recently strolled the flower shops along 28th Street in Manhattan with her husband, Gunther Romer, and searched high and low for fresh mistletoe to decorate her retail space.

"I had a hard time finding even the fake stuff," Min said.

The story is the same in other places. One of the country's largest suppliers, Tiemann's Mistletoe in Priddy, Texas, has halted shipments for the first time in its 58-year history.

"If you have been kissed under the mistletoe and it was bought, there's a 95 percent chance it came from us," said Robert Tiemann, the owner.

But not this year.

"There's not enough mistletoe in the state of Texas to run a commercial operation," Tiemann said.

He estimated that 60 percent to 70 percent of the plants in the state have been compromised by the drought, which has been the worst in Texas history. Many retailers and wholesalers in New York have had to reach out to suppliers as far west as California to get the plant.

But even before this year, mistletoe seemed to be losing its allure. Indeed, some (perhaps especially those who have had to dodge unwanted advances beneath it) are unmoved by this year's shortage.

"It's an ugly little bush," said Gardel Prudent of Gardel's Greene Garden in Brooklyn, who will not carry mistletoe this year.

The rise in prices brought on by the drought apparently sealed the plant's fate in Prudent's eyes. He said it would have cost him about $5 for a finger-size sprig. With the minimal markup that he could charge, he said, he wouldn't have made any profit.

Charlotte Moss, the designer, pointed out that artificial mistletoe can be "unbelievably real." But Moss, who remembers shimmying up a tree in her native Virginia to get fresh mistletoe, said that she still prefers the actual thing.

"There are a lot of things I can handle that are faux, but somehow for something with a tradition, it should be the real deal," she said. "Otherwise the kiss doesn't have the same impact."

But like Min, Moss was unable to find a good batch of real mistletoe this year, and so she had none for the elaborate holiday display at her Upper East Side town house. Still, she thinks the plant will be back next year — at a higher price.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture does not gather data on mistletoe. And there are few details readily available about the overall business of harvesting mistletoe, which characteristically grows on trees and sometimes must be shot with a gun to be retrieved or pulled down with a long pole and hook.

Years ago, the vibrant green leaves and pearly berries brightened graves and farmhouses at wintertime in places such as Oklahoma, where it became the state flower at the turn of the last century. But no longer.

Michael George, a Manhattan florist who recently covered a pair of 3-feet-wide globes in greens and artificial mistletoe to promote a dating website, said the plant is not as crucial to romance as it once was.

"In 1901 you needed to be under the mistletoe to steal a kiss in public," said George. "In 2011, you can do just about anything you want in public and it goes unnoticed."

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