Mistletoe, a parasitic plant best known as a hanging Christmas decoration under which men and women are obliged to kiss, is a vital member of many types of forests, according to ongoing research.
The plants may even help renew ailing woodlands, say the researchers.
"Even though mistletoe represents a minor component of the habitats it inhabits, in terms of species richness, abundance, and biomass, it has a disproportionately strong and pervasive influence on diversity patterns," National Geographic quoted David Watson, an associate professor of ecology at the Institute for Land, Water, and Society at Charles Sturt University in Albury, Australia, as saying.
In 2001, Watson reported that mistletoe acted as a "keystone resource" that could help raise the diversity and abundance of wildlife in forests. He had revealed that the plant served as a nesting ground food source for many animals, and often raised the number of species in its vicinity.
Since then, more projects have been undertaken to study the importance of mistletoe the overall health of plants and animals.
Watson has now revealed that there are approximately 1,500 varieties of mistletoe, which live on the branches of trees or shrubs around the world.
The researcher says that unlike other plant parasites, especially those that live underground, mistletoe makes its own energy through photosynthesis. He says that mistletoe relies on its hosts mostly for water and minerals.
He admits that mistletoe leads to the death of its hosts sometimes, but insists that it usually does little more than stunting their growth.
Watson points out that mistletoe produces flowers, berries, and leaves even during the winter, when trees and shrubs have gone bare in order to conserve energy and resources. Thus, it acts like a food source for foraging animals, he adds.
The researcher also highlights that fallen mistletoe leaves also serve as a key element of overall forest health "We've discovered that leaf litter may be one of the key mechanisms through which mistletoe influences overall forest dynamics and diversity patterns," Watson said.
"(Leaf litter) is the main source of carbon and a whole lot of other 'raw materials' that are used by microbial communities to form soil, the engine that drives aboveground productivity and growth," he added.
Watson says that new findings also suggest that mistletoe may help cure certain kinds of ailing forests. He believes that for many struggling forests, managing and reintroducing mistletoe is "most definitely" a potential solution.
"I have advocated this for restoring certain habitats," he said.