Campbell Vaughn: The myths and realities of mistletoe

In the spirit of the yuletide season, I was able to identify some mistletoe that came in the office this week, which got me interested in researching what this plant is and some of the associated holiday traditions.

 

Mistletoe is a semi-parasitic evergreen plant that attaches itself to trees and shrubs and steals the host’s water and nutrients. The name mistletoe actually means “dung twig” since birds eat the berries and pass the seeds to the surface of trees and shrubs in their droppings. This is how the dung twig is propagated.

 

The mistletoe grows slowly at first, and it could be years before seeds are produced. When mistletoe’s seeds sprout, the parasite grows through the bark of trees and into their tissues, extending through the branches. Healthy trees are able to tolerate small mistletoe infestations, but gradually this pest will weaken, disfigure and eventually kill its host like a cancerous growth.

Although mistletoe does obtain water and minerals from the tree, it does not depend totally on the tree for food. The green leaves of this plant contain chlorophyll and are capable of making their own food. This is why mistletoe is only semi-parasitic.

Once mistletoe infects a plant, removing it is difficult. When the visible portion of the mistletoe is cut, new plants grow back from inside the host. The best way to fight the infestation is to remove the infected branch completely.

Mistletoe is also poisonous. Eating any part of the plant can cause drowsiness, blurred vision, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, weakness and seizures. The symptoms are caused by a poisonous ingredient called phoratoxin, which is found in all parts of the plant, including the berries, and is especially concentrated in the leaves.

I find it interesting that the plant is poisonous because the Greeks were known to use it as a cure for everything from menstrual cramps to spleen disorders. The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder noted it could be used as a balm against epilepsy, ulcers and poisons. The Druids came to view mistletoe as a sacred symbol of vivacity and administered it to humans and animals alike in the hope of restoring fertility. No wonder the life expectancy during those days was so short.

There is a lot of history involved with the plant that some refer to as birdlime, all-heal, golden bough, drudenfuss, iscador and devil’s fuge. In Norse mythology, Frigg was the queen of marriage and mothers and had a son named Balder. Balder was the “Shining One” and considered the friendliest and kindest of all the gods. She loved her son more than anything and set out to make sure Balder could not be harmed by any living thing. Frigg made every living creature swear that they would never harm her beloved Balder. The only living plant she did not make promise to not harm her son was a little harmless plant called mistletoe. Eventually a bad guy named Loki made an arrow made of mistletoe and killed Balder graveyard dead. After much grieving, Frigg eventually made mistletoe promise never to harm anyone again. After that, mistletoe was promoted to a symbol of love.

As for our more recent customs, kissing under a sprig of mistletoe (usually hung in a doorway) appears to have first caught on among servants in 18th century England before spreading to the middle and upper classes. As part of the early custom, men were allowed to steal a kiss from any woman caught standing under the mistletoe, and refusing the smooch was viewed as bad luck. Another form of this tradition instructed the merrymakers to pluck a single berry from the mistletoe with each kiss, and to stop smooching once all the berries were gone.

So, when looking for mistletoe to hang in your home, make sure the level of berries equals the amount of kissing that is appropriate for the season.

Reach Campbell Vaughn, the agriculture and natural resources cooperative extension agent for Richmond County, by e-mailing augusta@uga.edu.

 

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