Meet Me Under The Mistletoe
My Mom always had a mistletoe ball hanging in the archway between the kitchen and the living room. It wasn’t real, but was cute as it had an elf (looked amazingly like the Elf On The Shelf elf) sitting on top of it. I don’t know how much kissing was done under it. I think it was more of a decoration than a romantic symbol. I wonder if she still has it?
I never really thought much about mistletoe. I knew it was sold at Christmas time for people to kiss under and that it was a parasite. So last January when I was in Florida, I was amazed to look up and see it in trees in a parking lot, of all places.
This may look like a tree that has lost most of its leaves. Really, it is a tree that has lost its leaves for the winter, but is filled with mistletoe (Phoradendron). All the green is mistletoe.
So last night when I was at Trader Joe’s, and saw some for sale in little boxes, I decided to find out some more information about this parasitic plant.
I read a few articles about this hemiparisitic plant. That means the mistletoe does live on the plant and get its nourishment from it as a parasite, yet, it is green and also making its own food by photosynthesizing. So, how does this plant end up living in the trees? Bird poop. Quite a few plants are spread by birds. That’s how poison ivy ends up places you never had it before. The old English version of mistletoe is “mistletan” and “mistel” is the word for “dung” and “tan” means “twig”, thus poop branch. Long ago they thought the mistletoe grew from birds, but later realized it was from their droppings instead.
The white fruit of the mistletoe contains sticky seeds. They are very poisonous, but not to birds. If you handle real mistletoe, make sure to wash your hands well to make sure there is no reaction to it. They birds eat them, they come out the other end, and are quite often deposited on the branches and twigs of trees. Because the seeds are sticky, they may also wipe them off their beaks onto the tree branches. These seeds send out a structure called a haustoria which penetrates the tree bark, finds the vascular system of the tree and starts sucking up the water and nutrients. This will be detrimental to the tree, and if it is left to overtake the tree, may kill the plant.
The Celtic Druids thought it had mystical power, others thought it was holy because it rooted close to heaven in the trees. Scandinavian mythology portrayed it as a symbol of peace and from there it somehow became a Christmas and New Year’s tradition to hang and kiss under it. A berry is removed for each kiss and when the berries are gone, the kisses end.
I think it is amazing how these myths and traditions get started and live on through the centuries. I’m going to dig through the closets and basement at my Mom’s house and look for the mistletoe elf ball. Meanwhile my Trader Joe’s mistletoe is hung and we’ll see how that goes.