Published 10:15 am Sunday, December 19, 2021
Mistletoe has been associated with Christmas since the 18th century, although it was associated with fertility and vitality through the Middle Ages. Due to its celestial habit of growing in treetops, mistletoe was considered a magical plant sent from the heavens. Growing from neither the earth nor water. The practice of harvesting mistletoe is also a precarious endeavor. If one did not possess a proclivity for heights and adventure, the most common way to harvest it was to simply shoot it out of the treetops.
In reality, Mistletoe is far less attractive than its long history of magical folklore would have one believe.
Mistletoe is an evergreen hemiparasitic plant. It attaches itself to a host shrub or tree by rootlike organs called haustorium. The haustorium steals nutrients, carbohydrates and moisture sources through the cambium layer of the host plant. Mistletoe usually will not kill a tree; however, it will significantly weaken it and can cause disease. It can be a contributing factor in a tree’s death if disease already exists. So, you see, there is nothing pleasant about mistletoe’s vampire-like qualities to its host plants.
It can be spread through bird feces, hence the not-so-pretty nickname “dung twig.”
The waxy, white berries of the mistletoe were used back in the day to make Birdlime. This sticky, white substance was smeared onto tree branches, trapping small birds onto them, which would then be captured by hand and eaten. It was also used in the making of British sticky bombs during World War II. Mistletoe berries and leaves are highly poisonous to people. Again, another ugly quality of the mistletoe.
Perhaps the wood of the mistletoe and its long history of people believing it would ward off evil/disease and attract love is its one endearing quality.
In Victorian times, mistletoe wood was worn as jewelry or carried on one’s person for protection and to ward off evil and illness. It was also hung in the doorways of homes to ensure goodwill and health to all who entered. It became a common practice to hang in bunches within the home during the holidays. It was acceptable for men at the time to kiss any woman standing under it. Women at the time believed that if they were not kissed at least once during the year under it, they would not marry that year. Each time a couple kissed under the mistletoe, a single berry would be plucked from it until there were none left, at which time it was thought to have lost its magic, and the kissing ceased.
Just some fact and folklore on mistletoe to ponder the next time you see it hanging during the holidays. I for one will not be shooting dung twig out of the trees and hanging in the doorways of my home anytime soon. I’ll leave it to nature and whisper, “Merry Christmas” next time I encounter it in the wild.
Dawn Conrad is a Virginia Cooperative Extension Master Gardener, Herbal enthusiast, Writer and Fiber Artist. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.