The Druids considered mistletoe sacred and the chief druid would cut mistletoe from oak trees (it was believed especially powerful if grown on an oak) with a special knife on the day of the winter solstice. The other druids would hold a cloth under the branch to catch the cuttings, so that they wouldn't touch the ground. The mistletoe pieces were divided among the community to hang above their doors to ward off thunder, lightning and evil spirits. The druid name for mistletoe meant 'All Heal' and they considered it powerful medicine. Tea made from mistletoe was used to treat epilepsy, St. Vitus Dance (a movement disorder similar to Parkinsons) and other neurological complaints. In fact, it does affect the nervous system and is quite toxic, so keep out of the reach of children and pets.
The Norse legend of mistletoe revolves around the god Baldr. His mother Frigg loved him so much that she asked every living thing not to harm him, however, she forgot to ask the mistletoe. The evil trickster, Loki discovered this and arranged to have Baldr shot and killed by his own brother with a mistletoe arrow. In one version of the story, the anguished Frigg and the mistletoe itself eventually succeeded in reviving him and her tears became the little white berries and she proclaimed that the mistletoe would always be a symbol of love and anyone standing under it could claim a kiss.
As Christianity became more accepted in Europe, the mistletoe was gradually integrated into the traditions and customs of the era. The first instances of an actual 'kissing ball' of mistletoe decorated with ribbons and other greenery comes from 16th Century England and it proved to be a very popular (and scandalous) addition to the Christmas celebrations of the time.
The mistletoe plant is hemiparasitic, which means that it can produce its own chlorophyll, unlike a true parasite. The most common mistletoes are the European mistletoe Viscum album and the American mistletoe, Phoradendron serotinum. There are many other species and even tropical mistletoes and all share similar characteristics and growth habits.
Birds love the berries and are responsible for spreading the plants. Mistletoe cannot be propagated by cuttings, new plants must germinate from seeds. The bird either wipes the seed on a branch with its beak, or eliminates the seed in its droppings. The seed contains a sticky substance that glues itself to a branch and if conditions are right, germinates, although for the first few years, growth is very slow. The mistletoe absorbs its nutrients from the tree and as long as the branch is alive, it will continue to grow. Clumps of mistletoe are difficult to spot during the summer, however once the leaves fall in autumn, the yellowish-green clumps stand out easily. Here in my area (west KY) hunters will shoot mistletoe from the trees as target practice and sell it to garden centers and retail stores for the holidays. It is usually quite plentiful along riverbanks and the edges of woods.
Mistletoe is a plant with an interesting and colorful history going back a couple thousand years. It is a unique plant that intrigues many, not only for its growth habits, but for its part in our legends and customs. So go ahead, hang a sprig in your doorway and give your sweetie a kiss this season!
Thumbnail image courtesy of Wikipedia