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THE MAGICAL AND PARASITIC MISTLETOE In my opinion, mistletoe is the strangest plant to associate with Christmas. It abounds with legends of special powers and how it became associated with Christmas. There are several types of mistletoes and hundreds of species. The mistletoes of Europe are Viscum species while the mistletoes of North America are Phoradendron species. Both these mistletoes are semiparasitic plants with green leaves. They grow into the tree to obtain water, minerals and a sturdy support and in doing damage many trees in warmer climates. The seeds are spread by birds that pluck the sticky, translucent white mistletoe berries. These stick to beaks and feet and are subsequently cleaned off by scraping them on the nearest tree trunk. The seed germinates and penetrates the host to obtain water and minerals. Legends suggest that the Druids worshiped mistletoe as the magical healer that offered protection from witchcraft and sorcery. In Europe, mistletoe grows chiefly on oak trees. It is an established fact that oaks are struck by lightning more frequently than any other kind of tree. Myths linking mistletoe with the super natural, the sun, and the celestial fire may have come from this phenomenon. They harvested with golden sickles and never allowed mistletoe to touch the ground. Another legend relates that Freyja, the Norse equivalent of Venus the Goddess of Love, had her son Balder protected against harm derived from fire, water, air, and earth. Apparently, Freyja neglected mistletoe. Because it grows on trees without ever touching the ground, a clever, but evil foe made an arrow from the branch of mistletoe and shot Balder. Although Freyja revived her son, she then made the remorseful mistletoe promise never to cause harm again. Since then the plant has become a symbol of peace between enemies and friends. Early Christians condemned mistletoe as evil and pagan, but the custom was integrated into a Christmas ritual of a holy kiss of peace and pardon, passed by priests throughout the congregation. This custom was later construed to establish the right of men to kiss women found standing under the mistletoe. The custom of kissing under the mistletoe caught on in England long before it became popular in Puritan America. Nathaniel Hawthorne, discovered kissing boughs in Liverpool in 1855 and reportedly was shocked by continual and licentious use. Washington Irving wrote in his Sketch Book of "one berry and one kiss." A man could kiss a woman under the mistletoe if he picked a berry each time he puckered up. Once all of the berries were gone, the kissing stopped. Mistletoe was sold by the ball which was the entire plant cut from the tree. These often weighed 30 lbs. or more and so there were probably plenty of berries to go around. By the turn of the century in this country, the mistletoe bough and kiss became an American custom. Horticulturally speaking, there is no basis for the legends surrounding the mistletoe plant. I suspect that anything that promotes peace and good will is welcome and appreciated at this season. Kissing under the mistletoe is a fun custom but ancient legends aside, it has no magical powers. The only magic comes from what is conjured up in the hearts and minds of the participants. MISTLETOES AS PLANT DISEASES Mistletoes are most often associated with oaks but parasitize 62 different tree species in North America. In spite of all the legends associated with mistletoe, it continues to be a serious problem and affects many trees growing in warmer areas. After the plant is cut, it will not longer damage trees so, horticulturally speaking, it is probably a custom we should have throughout the year. Expensive treatments of pruning, herbicides, and tree wrapping are necessary to protect these trees from serious damage by these parasitic plants. Dwarf mistletoes are even more serious problems because they are true parasites and destroy the trees they attack. Nobody kisses under dwarf mistletoes because they destroy more timber than any other tree disease in the United States. Larry A. Sagers Regional Horticulturist Utah State University Extension Service Thanksgiving Point Office