Unwanted Christmas Guests: Mistletoe and Other Pests to Avoid During the Holidays | Science



Christmas is here. Tambourines, bright lights, jovial Christmas carols and theatrical colored paper that delight children and adults. This is the time of year when we open our doors to welcome family, friends, Santa Claus, The Three Wise Men and a charming parasite. A parasite? Yes: a green parasite, to be more precise. No, I’m not talking about the Grinch, but about another traditional Christmas guest: the mistletoe.

You’ve probably heard of the magical influence that a sprig of mistletoe can exert on a couple secretly in love. However, what you may not know is that the Christmas tree would flee from this parasitic plant if it could: the mistletoe steals the water and nutrients from its host plant, which is very serious when you are a tree! In a way, the mistletoe is like a fir tree like that selfish cousin who eats your polvorones and steals your toys as soon as you unwrap them.

The mistletoe has been in Europe for a while, but it is not the case with its American relatives: the band of the Arceuthobium or dwarf mistletoes. We’d rather have these stay at his place, so please don’t bring souvenir mistletoe sprigs from your Christmas trip to New York. All plant pests (parasitic plants, bacteria, viruses, fungi) that are not established in the European Union (EU) are considered undesirable guests.

You cannot bring plants, fruits, vegetables, flowers or seeds into the European Union without a proper phytosanitary certificate

While we are thinking about Christmas shopping, at European level we are working proactively to prevent the arrival of these pests. Why? Scientific data, which forms the basis of the risk assessments we carry out at the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), shows that some of them may like our climate and landscapes too much. And they have the potential to damage the grains we eat, the forests we walk through, or the flowers that adorn our gardens.

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Twenty pests, which are considered to have a serious economic, environmental or social impact, have been included in the EU’s list of priority pests, to which the EFSA plant health experts have contributed. It’s the equivalent of the guest list that you don’t want to go to your New Years Eve party. One of them is Xylella fastidiosa, a bacterium that is truly a bummer. It can infect more than 650 host plants, according to the latest update of the host plant database of Xylella from EFSA. These include the plants that give us some of the ingredients that fill our Christmas with flavor, such as oranges, olive oil, almonds, grapes, coffee and even wine.

Another “glutton” quite harmful is the Popillia japonica, a precious beetle from Japan that shines brighter than Christmas decorations, but ruthlessly destroys flowers and fruits. Clad in an emerald green suit as though prepared for a perpetual New Years Eve, the Agrilus planipennis constitutes a serious threat to forests. The Fall ArmywormSpodoptera frugiperda) can ruin an entire crop in the time it takes Santa Claus to distribute gifts to the little ones. A moth, Dendrolimus sibiricus, feeds on conifers (including Christmas trees) has Scandinavia worried because it has already reached central Russia. And what about the devastating yellow dragon disease (Huánglòng), also known as citrus greening disease, which strikes these trees mercilessly.

Plants with ‘papers’

Did you know that plants must also have their documentation in order to enter and travel within the Union? Just like when you travel to another country you have to make sure you don’t forget your passport – or any of your children please – the plants must also have their papers in order. Since international trade and transport could facilitate the spread of undesirable plant species and pests, European authorities – supported by EFSA’s scientific work – ensure that wood, fruit, branches and plants entering our territory have a phytosanitary certificate that guarantees that they are free of quarantine pests in order to avoid any risk to our native flora and cultivated plants.

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When it comes to avoiding pests, you count too. Remember: you cannot bring plants, fruits, vegetables, flowers or seeds into the European Union without a proper phytosanitary certificate. If you want to have some fruit during the flight, you can opt for one of the exceptions: bananas, coconuts, dates, pineapples or a durian. As for the durian, check with the flight attendants first. It is a very popular fruit that has the dubious honor of being banned from various public spaces in Asia due to its unpleasant smell.

Pests are no joke, as winegrowers can confirm: in the middle of the 19th century, almost half of the Gallic vineyards were destroyed in what is remembered as the great French wine plague. The culprit was phylloxera, a microscopic insect that crossed the Atlantic Ocean as an unintended consequence of improved transatlantic transport, and which most likely came from American grapevines. Systematic and harmonized surveillance is key to combat emerging plant pests and EFSA experts they work hard to provide the best science available to support authorities in this endeavor. Therefore, when you raise your glass of cava this Christmas, do not forget to also toast to the people who are dedicated to protecting the health of our plants and, therefore, what you are about to drink. Health!

Maria Tejero (@MariaT_Food) is a press officer at the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

NOURISH WITH SCIENCE is a section on diet based on scientific evidence and knowledge verified by specialists. Eating is much more than a pleasure and a necessity: diet and eating habits are right now the public health factor that can most help us prevent many diseases, from many types of cancer to diabetes. A team of dietitians-nutritionists will help us to better understand the importance of food and to demolish, thanks to science, the myths that lead us to eat badly.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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