Mistletoe: Secrets of the Seasonal Classic

Before you pucker up, learn about mistletoe's double life as an invasive plant. 



©2008, Dorling Kindersley Limited

2008, Dorling Kindersley Limited

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Stockings hung by the chimney with care are lovely. Strands of twinkling lights strung along the porch rail? I’m feeling the holiday spirit. And a star-topped tree in the living room may be the most recognizable icon of the season. But it isn’t my favorite. Step through a doorway this time of year and you might want to glance up. Mistletoe, that sprig of green, pointed leaves flanked with cheerful white or red berries tacked to the transom is a harbinger of love and togetherness. There is a good chance you’re going to get smooched. Kissing under the mistletoe has a long history, but the plant itself may not live up to the positive press it receives this time of year.

The traditions of mistletoe as a symbol of love dates back to ancient times. The Greeks believed loving couples who kissed under the mistletoe were destined to enjoy matrimonial bliss, the Druids regarded it as a symbol of fertility and Norse legend considers kissing under the mistletoe a celebration of life in honor the Goddess Frigga, whose tears turned the red berries to white and resurrected her son Balder, slain by the wicked Loki.

This sometimes invasive plant, however, may betray its romantic legend.

Phoradendron, the scientific name for American mistletoe, aptly translates from the Greek to mean “thief of trees.” With good reason. Although not technically a parasite, mistletoe can live on its own, but thrives when burying its roots into the branches of trees and leeching nutrients and moisture from its host. European mistletoe (Viscum album) is weaker than its American counterpart, but the aggressive American mistletoe will often kill its unwitting host.

Although toxic to humans, mistletoe berries are a valued source of protein for birds and the plants propagate commonly in the wild by way of avian digestion. Birds ingest the berries and then leave their fertile droppings on the branches of trees while perching. The common name for this plant isn’t much better than the scientific name. Mistletoe derives from the Anglo-Saxon “mistle tan,” or “dung twig.” The plant will sprout in a matter of weeks, although it takes several years before flowering begins. Find out how to grow mistletoe here.

The weaker European species does well in backyard cultivation and will live a decade or so. Although common in the wild, planting the more aggressive American mistletoe is not recommended.

We may not plant it and we sure aren’t going to eat it, but hang a sprig in the foyer and it’s suddenly the most popular room in the house. Merry Christmas one and all!

For those embracing the time-honored practice of kissing under the mistletoe, protocol requires a berry be removed for each kiss. When the berries are gone, no more kissing is permitted under its leaves.

Must be time to open presents.

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