It's the holiday season and time for romance. Cuddling by the fire, holding hands by the tree, and sneaking kisses under the mistletoe are just a few of the ways we show our love this time of year. Many people, though, would be surprised to know that mistletoe, one of the most romantic symbols of the holidays, is actually not very romantic at all.
Mistletoe gets its name from the old English words "mistel" which means dung and "tan" which means twig. It got this name because it is a plant that grows on branches of trees and early Europeans had no idea how it got there. Since birds were the only ones in those trees and had "done their business" on the branches, they decided the birds and their droppings created the plant and put the two together. Later in history, botanists found that the Europeans were correct and birds were the ones responsible for the growth of mistletoe in trees. They eat the berries and the seeds either get passed through their digestive tracts or, since the berries are sticky, seeds get stuck to their beaks which they then rub on the branches to get off. The seeds stick to the branches of the host tree and in just a few days send out roots into the tree which keep it in place on the branch to grow.
There are 2 main types of mistletoe. The European variety (Viscum album) and North American variety (Phoradendron flavescens) which, is the type most associate with Christmas. Mistletoe is capable of living on its own and making its own food, but it is most commonly found living on, and extracting nutrients from, trees and therefore is considered a parasitic plant. Mistletoe is most often found in the United States along the east coast from New Jersey to Florida. It is easy to spot in winter because, unlike most of the trees it grows on, it is an evergreen and stays green all year-long. It has small, pointy leaves and produces both flowers, which come in a variety of colors, and berries, which are either red or white. Mistletoe is toxic if ingested and can cause a variety of problems from severe stomach pain to death. Use extreme caution if you bring mistletoe into your home, especially if you have children or pets.
There are many legends of how this parasitic, poisonous plant became a romantic symbol of the holidays, but its true origin is unclear. In ancient times, some cultures associated it with fertility, others with peace, and still others thought it had magical powers. In modern times, we now associate it with Christmas and romance. It is a tradition that has withstood the test of time and seems here to stay. So, forget all the bad things you just read about this little shrub, and give someone you love a little kiss under the mistletoe, and spread some holiday cheer. It may just have some magical powers after all, and you never know what could happen.
*The mistletoe in my pictures grows in the trees that line the main street of my neighborhood and were the inspiration for this article.