A Christmastime Favorite

mistletoe tree(121685)Credit: Dan-Free Digital Photos

Our holiday mistletoe comes from a long heritage in Europe and in America. It is a parasitic plant that grows on certain hardwood trees like oak and elm, and on pine, fir, and apple trees. Although we refer to mistletoe as parasitic, it rarely kills the host tree. It is, in fact, able to photosynthesize on its own, and could live on the ground, but prefers not to. It uses its roots to invade the bark of the host tree and attach firmly.

There are many species of mistletoe, and our American species come from the family Viscacea, while the European species come from the family Loranthacea. The two different families lead us to believe mistletoe has been around for a long, long, time.

It is easy to spot mistletoe in the winter when the host tree has lost its leaves. The mistletoe plant stays green, and shows as great balls of the stuff up in the host trees branches. Because it is so hardy, and grows year round it has become a crucial member of the forest ecosystem. There are three kinds of butterflies that are entirely dependent on mistletoe for their survival. The nectar and pollen from the mistletoe flowers feed the bees. Birds eat the berries and nest in the plant. And deer and their relatives will eat it, as will squirrels. Humans, however, should not try eating this plant, it could be toxic.

The name "mistletoe" comes from Anglo-Saxon. It literally means "dung on a branch." That probably comes from the fact that birds are found around the plant, and where there are birds....

Having been around for so long, there are many legends about mistletoe. A French legend says that the tree that was used to make the cross on which Jesus was crucified had mistletoe in it. And the plant itself was cursed to never grow upon the ground.

The Druids believed the plant could help in matters of fertility, and heal those afflicted with witchcraft.

Mistletoe has been seen as a symbol of peace. Legend says if enemies encounter each other under mistletoe, they must agree to lay down their weapons in truce until the next day.

We have the tradition of kissing under mistletoe. Legend says that a couple who kisses under mistletoe will have good luck. But if an unmarried woman is not kissed under mistletoe, she will remain unmarried for yet another year.

mistletoe close-upCredit: morguefile