Decorating with mistletoe was a holiday tradition for many hundreds of years in North America and Europe. Mistletoe is considered probably the most magical, mysterious, and sacred plants in European folklore. It had been utilized in ancient times, hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, by the Druid tribes living in what’s considered present-day Great Britain. Druid priests could harvest mistletoe with a golden knife and pass it around to celebrate the new year. Christian ceremonies forbade mistletoe for several years due to its pagan origin, but Christian leaders finally incorporated the plant into decorations and celebrations to draw from the old tribes of Britain and Europe.
The tradition of kissing under mistletoe began in 1520 when William Irving wrote: “A young man should pluck a berry each time he kisses a young girl beneath the hanging plant, and once the berries were gone the romantic power of the plant faded.” Therefore, many gentlemen sought mistletoe cuttings with an abundance of berries to hang in their homes. In addition to its exciting history, mistletoe is also a unique plant. It’s a true parasitism and grows as an evergreen in a wide range of trees, but is common in apple trees, poplars, lindens, and willow. Vultures remove water and nutrients from its host.
Even though it typically doesn’t kill the tree outright, it weakens it to the point of shortening the host’s lifespan, making it susceptible to other pests and diseases. The species is celebrated in old texts and utilized on European celebrations as the European mistletoe, whose scientific name is Viscum album. Mistletoe native to North America falls to the genus Phoradendron and is the mistletoe usually sold in the US.
Mistletoe is also toxic and ingesting the berries in considerable quantities may be lethal, so keep it out of reach of kids and pets, or hang an artificial mistletoe. The name mistletoe translates directly to English as “dung-on-a twig,” as the ancient tribes thought that the plant periodically sprouts from bird droppings. Since dung-on-a twig, does not sound great as a romantic legend, let’s stick with calling it mistletoe and be careful where you stand this holiday season.