Under the Mistletoe

Wasn’t it just Thanksgiving? And yet here we are, days away from Christmas and the New Year. I’m already back in my home town for the holidays so you can expect updates from me this week, all centered around Yule, Christmas, and the New Year.


Mistletoe with berries

The first plant that “Santa Sexy Plants” will talk about this holiday is Mistletoe. Why? Mostly because in the long car ride across the great state of Pennsylvania yesterday my friend Chris asked me about it and I started lecturing him about this interesting plant (car rides are awesome for trying your material out on  a captive audience). But it really is a cool piece of botanic wonder. For starters, what we call mistletoe varies depending on your location. In Europe it refers to Viscum album and generally can be recognized by the white berries in clusters of 2-6. However in America, it most likely refers to the plant Phoradendron flavescens which  usually has clusters of 10 berries. These two different plants look incredibly similar and function similarly in their environments.

Mistletoes are usually parasites. They grow on trees, usually high up in branches where the seeds are deposited by birds, produce an appendage called a haustorium that penetrates the bark of the tree, and actually pilfer water and nutrients from the host tree. However, the correct term for these plants is “hemiparasite” since mistletoes are capable of photosynthesizing their own food if they do not find a host.

But the fertility folklore is probably the most interesting aspect of the plant.Mistletoe features in the customs and legends of a few different cultures.  It is said that the tradition of kissing under the Mistletoe originated in the Scandanivian countries. There is a Norse story that tells of Baldr the Sun God who dreamt of his death. His mother, Frigga, the Goddess of Love, went to every plant and animal upon the Earth and received their word that no harm would befall Baldr by their hand (so to speak). But Mistletoe does not grow upon the Earth, so the God Loki constructed an arrow made of Mistletoe and tricked the blind God Hoder into shooting Baldr dead. For three days life on the Earth stopped as the elements tried to revive the God. In the end, it was Frigga’s tears that fell upon the mistletoe, turning the berries from red to white that brought her son back to life. She was so overjoyed that she kissed each person who passed by her as she stood under the plant and declared that no harm should befall any person but instead the would receive a token of love – a kiss.

Mistletoe for the New Year

Mistletoe for the New Year

This practice evolved into the 18th century  “kissing ball” in Europe where one cannot refuse a kiss under the decorated plant bauble or they will be destined never to marry. More modern incarnations of this practice dictate that for every kiss under the mistletoe one berry must be removed. When the last berry is plucked you can no longer expect a kiss underneath it. In France, this practice is reserved for the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve and is celebrated with the phrase “Au gui l’An neuf” (Mistletoe for the New Year).

In the Celtic tradition the significance of Mistletoe dates back to the Druids. According to Pliny the Elder,

The druids – that is what they call their magicians – hold nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and a tree on which it is growing, provided it is Valonia Oak…. Mistletoe is rare and when found it is gathered with great ceremony, and particularly on the sixth day of the moon….Hailing the moon in a native word that means ‘healing all things,’ they prepare a ritual sacrifice and banquet beneath a tree and bring up two white bulls, whose horns are bound for the first time on this occasion. A priest arrayed in white vestments climbs the tree and, with a golden sickle, cuts down the mistletoe, which is caught in a white cloak. Then finally they kill the victims, praying to a god to render his gift propitious to those on whom he has bestowed it. They believe that mistletoe given in drink will impart fertility to any animal that is barren and that it is an antidote to all poisons.

Mistletoe does not as readily form associations with Oaks (usually preferring Apple trees), so the presence of Mistletoe on the sacred Oak made the plant especially revered by the Druids. Also, I’d like to point out that the “victims” Pliny talks about there are the bulls, not people. But why did they have the association with fertility? Why could this sacred mistletoe cure infertility in both people and animals? Well the answer there has a lot to do with those milky white berries. As the collection of the plant was done around the winter solstice much of the ritual had to do with the rebirth of the Sun. In many different cultures the berries of the mistletoe were deposits of sperm, left by the god, safely deposited not in heaven or on earth but “out of harm’s way” along the boughs of mistletoe growing high in the trees. That’s why many herbal traditions consider mistletoe to be an aphrodisiac, as well. It is literally the essence of male virility.

In the Americas, native peoples used the plant to help stimulate contractions during childbirth or as an abortifacient if taken earlier in the pregnancy.

So this holiday season, why don’t you take a moment and think about that before you ask for a kiss under those sticky white berries.

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