No one gives much thought to mistletoe beyond the Holidays.
My only experience with mistletoe is limited to the artificially-colored preserved sprigs that pop up in stores this time of year.
Amazingly, there are more than 1,300 different species of this plant parasite worldwide. If you are a fan of essential oils, you might be interested to know that mistletoes are related to the sandalwoods, a group of parasitic plants mostly known for their distinctive scent.
Mistletoe is an obligate parasite; it cannot live without its host plant, but it is also considered a hemi-parasite (“half-parasite”). For mistletoe, this means it absorbs only water and materials dissolved in water carried through the host plant. Mistletoe carries out photosynthesis to produce its own food sources, just like any other green plant. The range of possible host plants depends on each mistletoe species. Some have very broad host ranges, others very narrow.
Several mistletoes are found in the United States and are typically considered pests. They may disfigure or kill their host plant over time. A particularly troublesome mistletoe along these lines is Dwarf Mistletoe (Arceuthobium spp.), which looks nothing like the mistletoe we see during the holidays, but is still a mistletoe. It is only about an inch tall, and its leaves resemble flattened scales.
Many mistletoes are inconspicuous, with small flowers and fruits at specific times of the year, but many put on spectacular displays of large colorful flowers. Some depend on birds or other animals to disperse their seed, others have evolved berries that explode with enough force to spread seed far and wide. Scientists have even found that some mistletoes can parasitize other mistletoes!
How in the world did a plant parasite become associated with kisses and Christmas? There are lots of legends told about mistletoe, but the familiar association with Christmas has its roots in Europe. The ancient Druids used a golden sickle to cut mistletoe from their most-revered tree, the oak, as part of ceremonies celebrating fertility that included human sacrifice. The Druids also celebrated the winter solstice which may explain part of mistletoe’s association with Christmas-- but it’s a stretch.
Supposedly, a Norse myth explains mistletoe’s link to kissing. According to the myth, an arrow made from mistletoe killed Balder, son of Frigga, the goddess of love and beauty. The other gods resurrected Balder, and Frigga’s tears of joy formed the white berries produced by the common European mistletoe species, Viscum album. Legend says that the berries represent kisses bestowed by Frigga to people that meet under the mistletoe. Some say that a berry should be removed from the mistletoe for each kiss and that the mistletoe loses its "power" once all the berries are removed.
The name mistletoe comes from second-century Anglo-Saxon descriptions of the plants as "misteltan,” derived from the word “mistel” meaning dung, and “tan” meaning twig. These early people associated the appearance of mistletoe with droppings from birds on tree branches. Not exactly the most romantic legend around, but they did think there was some magical process at hand that spontaneously generated the resulting mistletoe plants.
The French link mistletoe to Christmas through Christ’s crucifixion, using the fact that mistletoe is poisonous. According to a French legend, the original mistletoe plant grew on the tree that was made into the cross on which Jesus was crucified. This made the mistletoe cursed, causing it to be forever poisonous and a parasite, never allowed to grow independently on the ground.
Mistletoe may be poisonous, but at various times it has also been considered an aphrodisiac. Medically, it can be an abortifacient, meaning it will cause a miscarriage of pregnancy. Some writers suggest this is one reason mistletoe is linked with fertility, which in some cultures also meant uninhibited sexuality and promiscuity. In any case, ingestion of mistletoe is likely to cause severe cardiac, digestive, and neurological malfunction and death are likely. You’d be wise to search for aphrodisiacs elsewhere!
Another random fun fact: the mistletoe that started the kissing tradition according to European folklore is usually the species Viscum album. The mistletoe sold in the U.S. is an assortment of species from a different genus, Phoradendron. But regardless of the mistletoe species used, it really is an odd tradition when you stop to think about it!