5 Fun Facts About Mistletoe
Holly, fir trees, poinsettias, even Christmas cactus: There are a lot of plants with holiday traditions but none quite as misunderstood as mistletoe, the bright green bush with tiny white berries.You probably know about the tradition of hanging up a sprig of mistletoe to kiss under during the holiday season, but do you know where that fun tradition originates? There’s that and a lot more to learn about this humble evergreen bush.
Here’s five fun facts about mistletoe that you can tell your family over your holiday meal.
#1: Mistletoe is both a medicinal plant AND a poison!
One thing to be cautious of this holiday season is letting anybody, including pets, eat fresh mistletoe if you’re using it as part of your decorations. While it’s very pretty, all parts of the plant contain a toxin called phoratoxin that causes seizures, dizziness, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, and many more unpleasant symptoms. The leaves have a lot of this toxin as well, so be especially careful with those. Despite this dangerous toxin, the plant has also been used as an herbal remedy for thousands of years, used to treat some of the same symptoms it causes such as seizures, but it has also been used for treating arthritis, headaches, and hypertension. Some clinical studies are now being done on the efficacy of mistletoe for cancer treatments.
#2: What’s in a name?
Mistletoe goes by many other names, such as all-heal, birdlime, golden bough, and devil’s fuge in English, but also drudenfuss and iscador in other languages. The Latin name for European mistletoe is Viscum album, which means “white evergreen,” as these shrubs are classified with other evergreens like pine and fir because they bloom all year round. The name “birdlime” comes from the use of the sticky berries to trap birds, and the “mistle” part of the name is an Old German word. Though European mistletoe is used in most Christmas traditions, the shrub is also found all over the world from China to Germany to Australia. There is even a native American species of mistletoe, and it’s the state plant of Oklahoma. Outside of Europe, most mistletoe is classified under the Latin name Viscum cruciatum.
#3: The evergreen shrub is actually really bad for trees.
Though we think of this cute little green plant as being a simple, one of a bunch of fun holiday traditions from Europe like Christmas trees, it’s actually an invasive species that is a parasite on healthy trees. Mistletoe attaches to healthy trees (and sometimes cacti!) with a root system called a haustorium that siphons off nutrients and water from the branches where it’s attached. This can cause stunted growth and withering of the branches, and sometimes mistletoe can even kill the host tree. Mistletoe is also found on over 100 plant species, though it’s fond of poplar, hickory, and oak.
#4: Not all mistletoe looks like what we’re used to.
The plastic mistletoe you see in the store for hanging up at your holiday parties is bright yellow/green with little green leaves, green stems, and white berries, right? At least, that’s what most people think when they hear the word mistletoe. But since the bush grows all over the world, that means there are a ton of different varieties! The color of the stems and leaves varies widely from a pale mint green to a bright yellow/green, and the leaves can be teardrop-shaped or even so tiny they look like scales! The European mistletoe we’re used to also grows tiny white flowers before the berries appear. Some versions of the parasitic shrub also have larger leaves that let them take some energy from the sun as well as the host tree.
#5: The tradition of kissing under it came from Druidic traditions.
Finally onto our most well-known mistletoe tradition: hanging a sprig up to kiss under. How did this come about? According to historians, this cute kissing tradition probably started with the Celts during the first century AD. The Celts practiced the Druidic religion, which held trees as sacred to the gods, and they noticed that the mistletoe shrub that grew on their sacred trees bloomed even in the cold winter months. The plant was alive and vibrant even in the midst of death, which led to the idea that it could help with fertility, bringing life to a barren person. Therefore, the tradition developed that to kiss under the evergreen shrub during the winter would bring fertility to a couple. Of course, these days, we translate “fertility” to love! In the Victorian times, the kissing tradition took off, with many variations on the rules about kissing under the mistletoe.
These days, some of these traditions are falling by the wayside. But we can always revitalize them to honor the traditions of our ancestors. Try hanging up a sprig of mistletoe at your next holiday party. At the very least, it will give you an excuse to tell everyone the interesting facts you just learned. Just remember, don’t let pets eat your holiday mistletoe!