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Mistletoe hangs around as centuries-old Christmas tradition

The festive sprigs of evergreen leaves and pearl-white berries known as mistletoe that traditionally deck the halls of American and European homes during the Christmas season have a varied history. Ancient cultures believed the plant held magical healing powers put in place by the gods. Centuries later, it allowed for a stolen kiss that could determine a person’s luck — or lack thereof — for the next year.

The evergreen plant produces berries in the bleak midwinter, which led many cultures, including the Romans, Greeks, Druids, and Norse, to consider it sacred. They saw mistletoe as a good omen associated with fertility, vitality, healing, peace, and love. Thought to possess spiritual powers, mistletoe was used in rituals as well as medicinally for a wide range of health issues.

The well-known smooching tradition associated with mistletoe, which remains to this day, seems to have evolved in 17th century England among servants. An amorous fellow was allowed to steal a kiss from any unsuspecting lady who happened to be standing under a hanging, berry-filled sprig of viscous album (its biological name). If the kiss was declined, bad luck would follow for the woman.

Single young women not kissed under the mistletoe at Christmas were believed to be doomed to another year with no prospect of marriage. Once a kiss was taken, a berry was removed from the sprig. When no berries remained, no more kisses could be stolen.

However, not all images of the merry mistletoe are so charming.

The name comes from the Anglo-Saxon words “mistil,” meaning dung — yes, poo — and “tan,” meaning twig. Celtic Druids believed mistletoe was a gift from the gods delivered by birds and left on branches of trees. They weren’t wrong. The seeds do travel via birds, who eat the berries and poop the remains on branches, where the mistletoe soon takes root.


Before it is plucked from a branch for use by seasonal smoochers, this evergreen charm acts as a bit of a moocher when it comes to its host. Some in the horticulture industry look upon mistletoe as a tree disease, while others consider it a parasite.

A seed deposited on a tree branch grows modified roots, called haustoria, that pass through bark and spread into the water-conducting tissue of a tree. Mistletoe makes its own food but steals water and nutrients from its woody host.

The effect of mistletoe on a tree is minimal unless the infestation becomes severe. A heavy infestation can weaken a tree, making it more susceptible to disease.

Mistletoe is extremely difficult to control and almost impossible to remove. Breaking it off at the surface results in regrowth. The best way to remove it is to prune 12 inches from the point of attachment.

But hold off on that chain saw, as this holiday staple has some benefits. The more than 1,500 species of mistletoe worldwide are a beneficial food source for wildlife. The plant is a coveted winter comestible for cattle, deer, porcupines, and other critters that forage on its ever-present leaves. Bees and other pollinators drink from the tiny flowers that produce the berries on which birds delightfully feast.

American mistletoe, the only one native to Texas, differs from the more potent European species. European mistletoe has been used for centuries to treat a variety of ailments and is currently one of the most prescribed medications for cancer patients abroad.

Should you spy a cluster of native mistletoe within arm's reach, go ahead and snap some off to deck your halls. American mistletoe, once believed to be extremely toxic, has been found to cause no more than gastrointestinal upset if ingested in a small amount by a person or a pet. So, hang it in a well-trafficked area and let the Christmas kissing begin!

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