Posted by: ktzefr | December 9, 2015

Mistletoe: 10 Fun Facts and A Few Memories

On a foggy morning walk I looked up and saw this…

Mistletoe in the trees; Photo:KFawcett

Mistletoe in the trees; Photo:KFawcett


From a distance it looked like squirrel nests.  But the “nests” were green.  They were ball-shaped with little tendrils dangling over the branches.  A nest constructed among these pencil-thin branches would fall out of the tree at the first gust of wind. But these held on; they didn’t budge in the breeze.

It was mistletoe!

I remembered going to the woods in Kentucky to search for wild mistletoe and holly at Christmas.  It was impossible to reach the mistletoe by climbing the huge hickory and oak and poplar trees that filled the mountains.  The plant often grew, as this is growing, way out on the tiniest branches.  So my brother used his rifle to shoot it loose from the tree.  Then we searched through the carpet of fallen leaves and gathered up the pieces, tied them in bundles with ribbons, and decorated the house.  

I didn’t know a thing about mistletoe in those days except the notion that, if a boy held a clump of the green stuff over your head, you had to kiss him.  In my nine-year-old world this was…well, yucky — until it wasn’t.

Years later in Costa Rica’s Tirimbina rainforest, in the cloud forest of Bosque de Paz, and along the Caribbean in Tortuguero we found wild mistletoe growing like weeds in the trees.  Here, it is nearly impossible to take a hike and not be under the mistletoe. Birds pollinate the flowers and spread the seeds.  One pretty type called Parrot Flower mistletoe has long, tube-shaped red and yellow flowers and bright blue berries.  The thin flowers are pollinated by hummingbirds and the berries are believed to be eaten by parrots and then the seeds “deposited” throughout the forest.

I like to come across wild things on my walks.  They remind me of home and of other places where I’ve felt at home in the world — the woods and cloud forests and jungle.  Likewise, when I’m traveling and I spy a clump of mistletoe clinging to a giant tree on a hot and humid day in the tropics, it gets me to thinking about Christmas and childhood, other times and other places, and the years in between.  It’s all good.

Today I went in search of mistletoe and found… 

— Mistletoe is a hemi-parasitic plant, which means that it’s not fully parasitic because it does photosynthesize and produce food, but it also draws nutrients and water from the host tree.

— The Druids considered the plant a symbol of life because it grew even during winter.  They believed it could increase fertility.

— In the Middle Ages mistletoe was cut, tied in bunches, and hung in front of cottages to scare away passing demons.  It was also hung over stable doors to protect livestock from witches.

— The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe has its roots in Celtic culture.  In Norse mythology it also stands for love and friendship.

— Hanging mistletoe at Christmas is a practice that began in Britain in the 18th century.

— Mistletoe by any other name is the same, but these don’t sound nearly as pretty — birdlime, all-heal, golden bough, drudenfuss, iscador, and devil’s fuge. 

— One of the most surprising and “greatest discoveries made in the plant world in 2010” was a new species of mistletoe found in the forests at the summit of Mount Mabu in Mozambique in East Africa.  The plant was spotted by one Colin Congdon, a renowned East African butterfly specialist. 

— Pliny the Elder (23 to 79 BC) recorded the widely held belief that whatever grew on the sacred oak tree was sent from heaven.  Thus, it was believed that the mistletoe plant was protected in some mystical sense from injury or harm and that these mystical powers could be channeled into healing powers.

— Another connection to the plant’s perceived curative powers is related to epilepsy.  Since the mistletoe was so well rooted in the trees that it never fell, some people assumed that an epileptic could take a concoction of the plant or carry it in his/her pocket, and that person would not fall, as happened during seizures.

— Many ancient cultures believed it could cure various ailments.  Actually, the plant is toxic and can cause numerous symptoms, including vomiting and stomach pain.  However, according to the National Institutes of Health, mistletoe injections are available now in clinical trials in the US (by prescription in Europe) as a treatment for cancer. 

So, who knows…


For more info:

Check out this piece about other interesting Christmas traditions at The Telegraph.

An interesting and informative article about mistletoe by Professor Frank Taintor in the Department of Forest Resources at Clemson University. 


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