With Thanksgiving just over a week away, stores have already begun filling up their aisles with Christmas stuff. I even drove past a house the other night that already had Christmas lights out. After next week, all the stores will be playing holiday tunes, and young girls will have to watch their step, lest some young man catches them under the mistletoe unawares. While many of our Christmas traditions developed out of strange folklore, the history of kissing under the mistletoe is one of the weirder ones. This video summarizes its origins:
If the strange pagan background isn’t enough, the tradition gets weirder when you think about what mistletoe actually IS. It is both parasitical and poisonous. Mrs. M Grieve in her article on mistletoe describes how the plant grows:
When one of the familiar sticky berries of the Mistletoe comes into contact with the bark of a tree – generally through the agency of birds – after a few days it sends forth a thread-like root, flattened at the extremity like the proboscis of a fly. This finally pierces the bark and roots itself firmly in the growing wood . . . Mistletoe is a true parasite, for at no period does it derive nourishment from the soil, or from decayed bark, like some of the fungi do – all its nourishment is obtained from its host.
Another article from the National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) says that, although some European mistletoe can be used for medicinal purposes, “Eating raw, unprocessed European mistletoe or American mistletoe can cause vomiting, seizures, a slowing of the heart rate, and even death.” Wow. That’s quite a track record for something that we use as a symbol of love.
Despite the plant’s parasitical nature, however, having some mistletoe growing onyour trees can actually be somewhat beneficial. The following article expounds on this:
The deciduous trees are nearly all bare now, putting their branches— and whatever is living in them— in full view. If you think you see a bird’s nest, look a little closer and you might discover that your tree is playing host to a growth of mistletoe…
But even if there are some benefits in letting the mistletoe grow, it is a still a parasite and thus will damage its host. If you’re concerned about the life of your individual mistletoe-infested trees, you will probably want to prune off the mistletoe as much as possible. This is task that is better not to do yourself – it’s too easy to damage the tree you’re trying to protect. As the above article says, this kind of tree pruning is best left to a professional arborist. Just don’t stand too close to the worker if you don’t want to be smooched.