I have fond memories of mistletoe from my childhood… make that more my teenage years. Naïve parents would hang a sprig of mistletoe from a ceiling, not realizing that adolescent boys would be hovering around, waiting for their daughter to pass under it, for, as everyone knows, a guy is allowed to kiss a gal under the mistletoe during the Christmas season. If the girl rebuffs him, the legend says, she’ll suffer a full year of bad luck.
I had my first “real kiss” under a sprig of mistletoe, rapidly followed by a second and a third. In my adolescent life, it was second only to spin the bottle as a sure way to get close to a female!
I should point out that this is not just another sexist macho thing. Young ladies have been known to hover around a sprig of mistletoe waiting for a certain guy to pass under it… or maybe even just any guy. So it does work both ways!
Haven’t see it in years
I haven’t seen mistletoe on sale for Christmas in years. In fact, make that decades. None of the local garden centers carries it anymore. All I can find is plastic mistletoe these days! What happened?
I’m hoping one of my readers will know, as for once, I’m writing not with advice for gardeners, but trying to understand why a truly interesting plant-related Christmas tradition is dying out.
Maybe it priced itself out of existence? I found a few mail-order sources offering a sprig of mistletoe for about $15… to which you have to add delivery costs. Yes, for one single branch. You’ve got to be kidding!
Or maybe people banned them from their homes because mistletoe berries are poisonous? If so, it should be pointed out that mistletoe is not that poisonous. Plenty of things in our homes, notably under the kitchen sink and in the medicine cabinet, are far more deadly! Eating a few berries will just make you feel a bit sick, that’s all. The same with pets. Plus we still bring holly into our homes as a Christmas decoration, yet holly berries are also slightly poisonous!
No Wild Mistletoe Around
And I can’t just run outside and harvest a few twigs of mistletoe from a nearby tree. Although mistletoe is pretty ubiquitous and found nearly all over the world, northern North America, where I live, is one exception. (Antarctica is the other.) Exception for dwarf mistletoe, way too small to use as a decoration, there is no native mistletoe north of New Jersey in the eastern North America nor Oregon in the west.
Mistletoe Awareness Program
I think we really need to start some sort of mistletoe awareness program.
Mistletoe Awareness Test
Which of these Christmas plants is mistletoe?
Hover the cursor over the image to see if you were right.
I find most people, especially the younger generation (a bit of old fogey advice here: always blame the “younger generation” for everything — it’s just sooo convenient!), confuse mistletoe with holly. They’ve all heard of mistletoe, but if you ask them to pick out mistletoe out of line-up of Christmas plants, they inevitably choose the plant with shiny, spiny leaves and red berries (holly) over the smooth-leaved green branch with white berries (mistletoe) every time.
Even on the Internet, if you look for images of mistletoe, at least half the time, you’ll see a picture of holly.
I’m worried that a lot of kids are mistakenly kissing under a sprig of holly and that would be soooo wrong! (Although probably quite enjoyable!)
Interesting Mistletoe Tidbits
As a start to a future Mistletoe Awareness Program, here are some fun facts about mistletoe:
- The tradition of mistletoe as a Christmas plant predates Christianity. The Druids, among others, venerated mistletoe for its ability to remain green and retain its leaves even as everything around it turned brown.
- It’s thought that the custom of hanging up mistletoe at the end of the year may stem from the Druid tradition of laying down arms and exchanging greetings under the mistletoe.
- Mistletoe is a hemiparasite (cool term, n’est-ce pas?). It adheres to a tree or shrub by means of a sucker (actually, it’s called a haustorium, but why quibble over vocabulary?) and lives off the host’s sap. (Yep, it’s a sapsucker!) It’s not considered a total parasite, as mistletoe does carry out some photosynthesis on its own.
- Mistletoe will often kill the branch it’s growing on. A really heavy infestation can kill the host tree entirely.
- The original mistletoe (Viscum album) is a strictly European species, but similar although distantly related species (genus Phoradendron) are found in warm temperate parts of North America… and there are thousands of species of mistletoe in tropical regions worldwide.
Mistletoe is spread by birds that eat the berries and inadvertently carry the seeds to other host plants. Often the very sticky seeds (note the botanical name Viscum, for viscous) stick to the bird’s beak, so it tries to remove them by rubbing against the branch of a tree, sticking the seeds to the branch and thus starting a new generation. Other birds swallow the seeds and deposit them undigested on branches through their droppings.
- Mistletoe got is name from the way it sprouts where birds leave droppings. In Anglo-Saxon, “mistel” means “dung” and “tan” means “twig,” therefore, “dung-on-a-twig.”
- In many places, mistletoe is harvested by shooting it out of its host tree with a shotgun. Failing that, a slingshot, a stone or tall ladder can also be used.
- American mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum) is the state flower of Oklahoma.
- In northern North America (including all of Canada except British Columbia), the only local mistletoe is dwarf mistletoe (various species in the genus Arceuthobium) which actually grows mostly within the host tree, a conifer. The only visible symptom of its presence is that it usually causes the formation of a witch’s broom. Not much chance of harvesting mistletoe sprigs from these tiny, barely visible species!
- All parts of mistletoe are poisonous… which doesn’t stop humans from using mistletoe as a medication. In Europe, preparations from it have been approved for treating cancer and even AIDS.
There you go: a very odd plant and a great Christmas tradition that needs a serious boost.