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Is mistletoe mystical and romantic or malicious, malevolent and murderous? Perhaps no plant ever has such Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde traits.
The group of parasitic plants is a strange assemblage. One frequently asked question is how many different kinds of mistletoes there are. The answer varies on the taxonomy, but there are mistletoes in four different plant families.
Going down to the genus level, there are some 50-70 different genera that include hundreds of species. While there are more kinds found in the Old World than the New, the mistletoes pretty much circle the globe.
The major mistletoes that grow in Europe are Viscum species, while the mistletoes that grow in North America are Phoradendron species.
"Traditional mistletoes" have pointy, green, leathery leaves with waxy red or white berries and bright red to yellow to green flowers.
Birds eat the berries and eventually leave mistletoe seeds in their droppings on the branches. Birds also spread seeds by wiping their beaks on the tree bark to clean off the sticky seeds after they eat. The sticky seeds stay in the tree rather than falling to the ground. The seeds then sprout roots within six weeks, but it takes five years for a new plant to start flowering.
Because of this, and because people in the Middle Ages believed in spontaneous generation, they thought mistletoe grew from birds. The name comes from the Old English word "misteltan" — "mistel" meaning "dung" and "tan" meaning "twig."
Mistletoes are many-faceted, and depending on whom you ask, you will get a different answer on what kind of plants they are. Some will talk of romantic customs or historic legends. But ask a plant doctor or pathologist about mistletoe and they'll tell you it's a serious plant disease that attacks the host plant, robbing it of nutrients and water.
There are many legends and myths surrounding the plants, some dating from pre-Roman times. Legend holds that the Druids worshiped mistletoe as the magical healer that protected them from witchcraft and sorcery. It was so important that they harvested the clumps of mistletoe from the trees with golden sickles. It was so sacred to them that they never allowed the clumps to touch the ground.
Vikings believed that mistletoe had power over the dead. Legend says that one day Balder, the god of the summer sun, dreamed he was going to die. His mother, Frigga, the goddess of love and beauty, was frantic and said that if he died, everything on Earth would die.
To ensure her son's safety, she called upon the elements of air, fire, water, earth as well as all the But Balder's enemy, Loki, found a loophole. Because mistletoe grows on trees without ever touching the ground, Loki used an arrow made from a mistletoe branch to shoot Balder.
The elements tried to bring Balder back to life but failed. Frigga changed the red mistletoe berries to white, raising Balder from the dead. Frigga reversed mistletoe's bad reputation by kissing everyone who walked underneath the plant in gratitude for getting her son back. Since then mistletoe has become a symbol of peace between enemies and friends.
Early Christians condemned mistletoe as evil and pagan. But that didn't stop the custom of kissing under the mistletoe from becoming a Christmas ritual — a holy kiss of peace and pardon, passed by priests throughout the congregation. This custom evolved into stealing a kiss from anyone 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 traveled to England and discovered kissing boughs in Liverpool in 1855. Reportedly, he was shocked by the continual and licentious use of this plant.
Later 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. By the turn of the century, the mistletoe bough and kiss became an American custom.