Everything you want (or didn’t want) to know about Mistletoe

Most of us, as small children, were introduced to Mistletoe as the plant with the white (or sometimes red) berries that you’d hang up during the Holidays in order to persuade a girl to meet you under it so that she would have to give you a kiss. That is a true Mistletoe fact and the practice is still carried out all over the world by enterprising and fun-loving men and women, both the young and young-at-heart.

But do you know any more than that?  Where does it come from?  How does it grow?  Could you have some sprouting in your own back yard?

First a little biography on this magical and mystical plant that lives the ignominious life of a parasite. That’s right, it depends on another tree for it’s life-giving nutrients and for water. It begins life in bird-droppings that are deposited on a host tree by some seed-eating bird that fed on the waxey white berries from a mature Mistletoe tree found top the limbs of a nearby Gum, Poplar or maybe Oak tree.  

It can actually grow on most any kind of tree and in any area but seems to prefer swampy, or wetter-than-most, terrain. In Europe, the favorite place for the commercial growing of Mistletoe that is harvested all year long is orchard trees, especially apple.

The berries are surrounded by clusters of small, smooth green leaves that are evergreen and even in the dead of winter keep their color. Each berry contains about 4 tiny seeds. These seeds have a hard covering and are not digested by the birds so they are still alive and sprout when attached to a tree trunk. Eaten in large quantities, the berries can be toxic for humans but they have also been used for hundreds of years as herbal remedies and have even been used to treat some types of cancer today. In the winter, when other foods are scarce, the berries are an important source of nourishment for birds.

As far back as the days of Stonehenge and the Pagan Druids, Mistletoe was considered a sacred plant and was used in many of their ceremonies. Since this was the case, The Church of England banned it from all of their places of worship. Eventually the Druids, like most pagans became fewer and fewer and the church relented – Mistletoe was back.

The practice of hanging up strategically placed sprigs and guiding young ladies or gentlemen under it for a kiss goes back to at least the 16th century. References are made in early English literature to the practice of being entitled to a kiss from someone you have enticed under the mistletoe. Going back even farther, in the legends of the Norse gods, being under the mistletoe entitled you to the love of the fair maiden you found there. Legend also has it that hanging Mistletoe in your house, protects it from fires and from lightning in the summertime thunder storms.

If you are fortunate enough to own a tree that has Mistletoe growing amongst it limbs, protect it. Due to many environmental reasons our Eastern Mistletoe, in the central and southeastern United States, is becoming scarce in the wild. Most of the Mistletoe that we buy is commercially grown or imported. It looks the same, feels the same and if you hang it up, it works the same.

Try not to use the old practice of shooting it out of your tree with a shotgun as a lot of us did in days gone by. This damages the host tree, and the Mistletoe and will only get you a few sprigs for each shot. And above all remember, you may have gotten permission to hunt on your neighbor’s land or even land that is not your neighbors, this does not give you the right to hijack Mistletoe from his tree…but please do go out and buy a few sprigs of the magical plant and join in the Holiday fun.

I know you have someone in mind that you would like to introduce to the Legend of the Mistletoe.

Don Langrehr

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4 Responses to Everything you want (or didn’t want) to know about Mistletoe

  1. Mike says:

    Interesting article. I can remember as a youngster shooting mistletoe out of trees. Don is right, it takes quite a few shells for just a few sprigs. I would interested to know if many homes even think of hanging a sprig af Christmas or has that just died out.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Interesting reading for the holidays. I really didn’t know it was a parasite (my thinking is that’s it’s too pretty to be parasitic) and had no idea it could be found in the wild in this area.

  3. Keith says:

    Very interesting facts. I had no idea how mistletoe grew. It’s definitely better to be under it than under the birds who eat the seeds! I love to hear about the origins of traditions, sayings, etc. Great blog!

  4. Robin says:

    Interesting. Thanks for the info : )

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