Mistletoe is one of the plants traditionally associated with Christmas. Norse legend linked mistletoe with resurrection, life and love. Kissing under a suspended sprig of mistletoe at Christmas time might have derived from ancient Druid rites. During certain moon phases, according to lore, Druid priests used golden knives to cut mistletoe from oak groves.
The Druids considered it bad luck to let the mistletoe touch the earth. In eerie rituals, Druid priests placed mistletoe on straw altars on which they sacrificed a pair of pure white bulls. Afterwards, the white-robed Druid priests honored one another with gifts of mistletoe from the altar. They embraced and kissed one another, congratulating one another after their successful rite to ensure good fortune for the future. Read more about mistletoe myths.
The Celts also revered mistletoe. They credited the plant with magical properties and good luck, in spite of their belief that Christ was crucified on a cross made of mistletoe wood. In the British Isles, mistletoe was known as Holy Cross wood. Monks in monasteries boiled the mistletoe leaves for teas, and chewed on chips of the wood.
Some herbalists, particularly in Europe, continue to use mistletoe for medicinal value. Nonetheless, today’s most popular contemporary use remains dangling a sprig of mistletoe to secure a Christmas kiss.
Hanging mistletoe is a common ploy stealing for a Christmas kiss, but for trees, mistletoe can prove the kiss of death.
Mistletoe, a parasitic plant, requires a living host such as a healthy tree. Birds spread mistletoe infections by eating the plant’s berries and excreting seeds. Berries contain a single seed that stubbornly attaches to host trees. Mistletoe penetrates the tree bark and gets into the tree’s living tissues to establishes its root system within the tree branch. The portion of the plant under which we exchange Christmas kisses grows only after the inner root system develops up and down the branch.
Mistletoe is a stealthy destroyer of trees. The parasitic plant decreases a host tree’s growth and increases the tree’s likelihood of disease and susceptibility to drought. In forests, because mistletoe accelerates production of dead and downed trees, the plant increases fire hazards. Branches heavily laden with mistletoe tend to break off in storms or high winds.
The most common commercially sold mistletoe has leathery, oblong leaves typically yellow-green in color. The waxy berries of this evergreen range in color from a translucent pearly white to a pale pink. Birds, deer and cattle sometimes eat mistletoe berries as winter forage.
But if you bring mistletoe into the house, remember that the berries are toxic to humans.
To buy mistletoe, log on to mistletoe.com or check your favorite florist or greenhouse for this traditional Christmas plant.