The Truth About Mistletoe
Most of us are familiar with the holiday tradition of kissing under the mistletoe. But KUNC Gardener Tom Throgmorton says there’s more to the story. He offers insight concerning the history of the tradition and truth about the plant. Knowledge can take the romance out of things. Learning about mistletoe took some of the intrigue out of this holiday tradition.
Hanging a sprig of this evergreen plant with its white berries has a long history. The Norse myth was that the goddess of love bids everyone to kiss under the sprig because its medicinal powers revived her son.
Druids had expansive ceremonies to collect and use the plant. They thought kissing under it kept folks safe from evil. And armies that passed under branches with the plant put down their weapons for a day.
The legends, in part, stem from the plants medicinal qualities. It has been used carefully for its `life giving power’. But used improperly, it can cause severe stomach upset. In a small child it could be dangerous.
The plant is parasitic. It survives by getting nutrients from other plants. The new roots grasp onto the bark of the host tree. This allows the plant to get food and water. European varieties are usually found on apple or oak. North American varieties are usually found on spruce or fir.
The European varieties are the ones we associate with the holiday season. These have thick, dark green leaves and white berries. To bear fruit, the plant has to be at least five years old. The fruit is the key to how the plant is spread and its name.
The fruit is a favorite of birds. Once the seed is digested, birds spread it through the forest. Early plant observers noticed that plants sprouted from bird droppings. The more droppings there were on a branch, then the more new plants. In old English, the name reflects this observation. Mistle in old English means dung and toe means branch. Makes you want to run right out to get this season’s Dung-branch.
The current tradition is that if a woman is caught under the Mistletoe, then a man can steal a kiss. Then he plucks a berry from the sprig. The stealing of kisses ends when no berries are left on the branch of Mistletoe. With my new found knowledge, every time I pluck off a berry I’ll remember how Mistletoe is spread through the forests.