Nature Bulletin No. 172-A December 5, 1964
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
One of our cherished customs at Christmas time is that of decorating
our homes with mistletoe, including sprigs of it hung over doorways
and from ceiling lights. Why? And from whence came the convention
of kissing under the mistletoe.
There are as many curious customs, myths and traditions involving
that strange plant as there are races and countries of people. No one
knows where and how it originated, but mistletoe is distributed over
the earth in all the warmer climates and almost to the limits of the
Its unique habit of living on the branches of trees -- green and
reproducing without visible means of sustenance -- caused it to be
credited with magical properties, and to be regarded with superstitious
fear or religious reverence by primitive and ancient peoples.
There is a very old tradition in England that the mistletoe was once "a
fair tree in the forest", but that from its wood was made the cross upon
which Christ was crucified and, therefore, it was cursed and
condemned to be forevermore a parasite and the most despised of
plants. On the other hand, the ancient Druids held nothing more
sacred than the mistletoe and it played a prominent part in ceremonies
and religious sacrifices at the time of their New Year.
The Romans, during the feasts of Saturnalia in mid-December,
ornamented their temples and dwellings with mistletoe to propitiate
the gods to whom it was sacred. In Norse mythology there is a
complicated legend involving the death of Baldur, son of Odin and
Frigga, and the wicked Loki, whereby the mistletoe was condemned to
be a parasite with no power to cause misfortune, sorrow or death.
Further, beneath it anyone might receive and accept a kiss with
assurance that it was a symbol of peace and love Q.E.D.
In the United States there are two types of Phoradendron and about
100 species. The Dwarf Mistletoes are small scaly degenerate plants,
wholly parasitic, that grow only on coniferous trees. The True
Mistletoes grow only on deciduous hardwood trees. The best known of
these is the state flower of Oklahoma. It occurs as far north as
southern New Jersey, central Ohio, southern Illinois and eastern
Kansas. There is a closely related species in the Pacific coast states,
and there are other kinds varying in their leaves, flowers, fruits, size
and habits of growth.
The true mistletoe is an evergreen plant and, therefore, not altogether
a parasite. Being green, it contains chlorophyll and manufactures part
of its own food, but it procures water and other necessary substances
from the tree upon which it grows. It has roots, and those penetrate
thru the outer and inner bark of a branch to secure ascending sap from
the sapwood. If too many bunches of mistletoe infest a tree, eventually
they kill it.
In southern Illinois, mistletoe commonly grows in large dense bunches
that give a bizarre but pleasing touch to the woodlands in winter when
it becomes conspicuous among the naked branches. It has thick
leathery yellowish-green leaves that are oval and about two inches
long. The male flowers and female flowers are borne on separate
plants. The latter are followed by clusters of little berries that become
ivory-white when they ripen in autumn.
The berry is filled with a juicy sticky pulp enclosing a single seed.
They are said to be fatal to children but are eaten by many kinds of
birds. The pulp is digested but the little seed passes thru them
unharmed. This, plus the fact that seeds often stick to birds' bills or
feet, accounts for the spreading of this plant from tree to tree and from
place to place.
It can be a pest, particularly to a bashful guy.
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Update: June 2012