The word "mistletoe" dates back to before 1000AD, and is believed to be taken from the Old English "misteltan." "Mistel" is the Old Norse word associated with the modern day basic, and "tan" refers to a twig. The hanging or mistletoe over doorways is a a tradition around the world during the Christmas holiday season.
Characteristics of Mistletoe
The name mistletoe was originally applied to Viscum album, also known as European Mistletoe. This species is the only species native in Great Britain and much of Europe. This plant has smooth-edged oval evergreen leaves which are attached in pairs to a woody stem, along with waxy red or white berries in tight clusters of 2 to 6.
In America Viscum does not grow wild but the Eastern Mistletoe (genus Phoradendron) is similar. This type of mistletoe has shorter, broader leaves and longer clusters of berries.
Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grows on trees - generally hardwood trees such as oak and apple. As a parasite, it grows on a tree and uses its roots to creep into that tree's bark, which allows it to absorb nutrients from the tree. While a mistletoe infestation will reduce the growth of its host, it generally does not kill its host tree for many years, as that would mean death for the mistletoe as well!
To preserve the lives of the trees it infects, people must remove all infected branches, or manually removed the plant from the trees periodically. In the case of heavy manifestation, the complete removal of infected trees or shrubs may be necessary in order to limit the spread of the parasite.
Although mistletoe can produce its own food via photosynthesis and could in fact survive on its own, it is most commonly found in trees. It's also common to find mistletoe plants growing on top of other mistletoe plants.
You can most easily spot mistletoe in the winter because of its evergreen leaves and bright berries.
Propagation of Mistletoe
Mistletoe is spread primarily by birds. The berries are eaten by birds and the seeds pass through their intestinal system and eventually wind up in the bird's droppings on tree branches. Additionally, the berry juice is quite sticky and birds often wipe their seed-laden beaks on tree limbs to clean them - another way of passing the seeds along.
The mistletoe plant is a quick grower! Usually the plant begins growing within six weeks, although it generally takes up to five years before the plant begins to flower.
Kissing Under the Mistletoe
The origin of the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe is unclear, however, the tradition may have stemmed from either the Viking association of the plant with their goddess of love, Frigga, or from an ancient belief that mistletoe was related to fertility.
One legend states that a couple who kisses underneath mistletoe will have good luck, but a couple neglecting to perform the ritual will have bad luck. It is believed that a couple kissing under the mistletoe ensure themselves of marriage and a long, happy life, while an unmarried woman not kissed under the mistletoe will remain single for another year.
The correct mistletoe etiquette is for the man to remove one berry when he kisses a woman. When all the berries are gone, there's no more kissing permitted underneath that plant! An additional tradition is for maidens to place a sprig of the plant under their pillow at night. The woman will then dream of the face of her own true love.
Additional Mistletoe Trivia
French tradition holds that the reason mistletoe is poisonous is because it was growing on a tree that was used to make the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified. Because of this, it was cursed and denied a place to live and grow on Earth, forever to be a parasite.
Mistletoe is the state floral emblem of Oklahoma. Adopted in 1893, it's Oklahoma's oldest state symbol.
Mistletoe is also considered to represent peace. Ancient legends tell of enemies who encounter each other underneath trees bearing mistletoe. The enemies lay down their arms, embrace, and agree to a truce until the next day. .
Shakespeare referred to the plant as 'the baleful Mistletoe,' an allusion to the Scandinavian legend that Balder, the god of Peace, was slain with an arrow made of Mistletoe. He was restored to life at the request of the other gods and goddesses, and Mistletoe was afterwards given into the keeping of the goddess of Love, and it was ordained that everyone who passed under it should receive a kiss, to show that the branch had become an emblem of love, and not of hate.
WARNING - MISTLETOE IS POISONOUS!
Mistletoe is a poisonous plant that can cause acute gastrointestinal problems including stomach pain and diarrhea, along with low pulse. In some cases it can even prove fatal. Remember to keep it out of the reach of pets and small children!
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