Mistletoe may seem romantic at Christmas with its kissing tradition, but it is not a plant that should be welcomed on trees. It is an evergreen parasite and clumps of it can be seen easily in deciduous trees when the leaves have fallen. Its name comes from Old English mistel meaning dung and tan meaning twig, for bird droppings on a branch.
Mistletoe plants are also dioecious. They are either males producing pollen or females producing berries, usually in the months of October through December. The berries are small, very pale green, waxy and loved by birds who eat them and excrete the seeds onto branches where they stick. They germinate and create haustoria, root like structures that grow through the tree’s bark into its water-conducting tissues. The mistletoe grows slowly taking several years before it blooms and produces new seed.
If the plant is cut from the host tree, the haustoria will simply resprout and resume taking water and nutrients from the tree. Infected branches or the entire tree may die and chemical treatments only temporarily inhibit mistletoe growth. The branch should be cut at least one foot from the mistletoe attachment point to get rid of the embedded haustoria before the plant spreads to other branches.
Some people do not want the shape of their tree affected and opt to have the mistletoe removed every year or two but leave the branches intact. It can be costly. Others try wrapping cut areas with black plastic to starve the plant of light, but ventilation should be provided. A neighbor’s infected tree can contribute new mistletoe growth in trees that have been treated.
Mistletoe is only partly parasitic and does produce some of its own chlorophyll. It becomes increasingly parasitic in times of drought, taking water away from the host tree. If the host dies, so does the mistletoe.
At Christmas in some parts of the United States, it is a custom for younger men of a household to hunt in the woods for mistletoe, usually in the highest branches of trees. The best marksmen who shoot it out of the tree have the honor of hanging it over a door and claiming the first kiss beneath it. The man is supposed to remove one berry when he kisses a woman. When all the berries are gone, no more kissing is allowed under that plant.
The use of mistletoe seems to have originated in Great Britain in the first century with the Druids who believed mistletoe from oak trees could perform miracles like healing diseases, making humans and animals fertile and protecting people from witchcraft.
There is also a Norse myth about the sun god Balder having a dream foretelling his death. His mother, the goddess of love and beauty named Frigg, said if Balder died everything on Earth would die too. She asked all the elements of fire, water, earth and air plus all animals and plants to promise not to kill Balder. Everything but mistletoe took the oath.
The gods had fun hurling usually lethal objects at invulnerable Balder. Mischievous Loki, who knew mistletoe was the exception, gave some to Balder’s blind brother god named Hod to shoot at Balder and Balder died. The elements tried to bring him back to life for three days to no avail. Frigg’s many tears turned the red mistletoe berries white, the berries raised Balder from the dead, and Frigg kissed everyone who walked under the mistletoe in gratitude to the plant.
The power of the tiny mistletoe berry was great which is a reminder that mistletoe should not be placed where children and pets can get to it. Eating the berries can cause severe stomach cramps and diarrhea, or even be fatal.
Mistletoe is used to treat cancer in Europe. The FDA has not approved it as a cancer medicine and mistletoe extracts are not legal in the United States. However, kissing under the mistletoe is permitted almost everywhere. Watch the attached video about the use of mistletoe bearing drones.