Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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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 temperate zones.

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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