Larry Sagers Horticultural Specialist Utah State University Extension Service Thanksgiving Point Office © All Rights Reserved
On a recent trip to California, I was amazed at the number of trees that are attacked by the mistletoe plant. Christmas mistletoe, with all of its romantic notions and all kissing traditions is a deadly plant. I am not speaking of clandestine involvements or of other magical notations, but of how damaging this plant is to trees it attacks.
Mistletoes attack many desirable trees. Plant pathologists consider them a disease because they are parasites. They grow into the host plant and steal nutrients from the desirable trees and shrubs. In addition to the potential damage to desirable trees, the berries on the plant are poison. Never hang cut mistletoe where children can eat the berries because they are very toxic.
There are several types of mistletoes and hundreds of species. The mistletoes that grow in Europe are Viscum species while the mistletoes that grow in North America are Phoradendron species. Both these mistletoes are semi parasitic plants with green leaves. They grow into the tree to get water, minerals and a sturdy support system and in doing so they damage the trees
These mistletoes are primarily pests of trees in warmer locations. In Northern Utah, the dwarf mistletoes are common pests of forest trees but do not attack landscape ornamentals. They look very different and as far as I know, no one ascribes any romantic properties to them.
In Europe, mistletoe grows chiefly on oak trees. It is an established fact that lightning strikes oak trees more frequently than any other kind of tree. Myths linking mistletoe with the supernatural, the sun, and the celestial fire may have come from this phenomenon. History abounds with legends of mistletoe, its special powers and its association with Christmas. Legends suggest that the Druids worshiped mistletoe as the magical healer that offered protection from witchcraft and sorcery. They harvested the clumps of mistletoe with golden sickles and never allowed it 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. That did not stop the custom of mistletoe and kissing from integrating into a Christmas ritual of a holy kiss of peace and pardon, passed by priests throughout the congregation. Later this custom became 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 balls were cut from the tree and then sold. Since these weighed 30 lbs. or more, there were plenty of berries to go around. By the turn of the century in this country, the mistletoe bough and kiss became an American custom.
Although the plant is a parasite and horticulturally speaking, there is no basis for custom of kissing under the mistletoe, the legends surrounding the plant are interesting. The only magic comes from what you conjured up in your heart and mind. At this season, anything that promotes peace on earth and goodwill including mistletoe is a welcome part of the celebration.
Mistletoe is a parasitic seed plant that produces sticky, translucent white berries. Seeds are spread by birds that visit the plants. The berries stick to their beaks and feet and subsequently get scraped off on the nearest tree trunk. The seed germinates and attacks the host for water and minerals.