Mistletoe is a hemiparasitic perennial plant that can be found growing on several different species of trees. There are two distinct species, Viscum album L. (known as European or common mistletoe) and Phoradendron tomentosum (commonly called American or Christmas mistletoe). Simpler put, this beautiful plant is a parasite that grows on the branches of otherwise healthy trees; even sending its roots into the trunk to take nutrients from it’s host. The irony of this relationship is that this parasitic plant is perfectly capable of producing its own nutrients through photosynthesis. Unfortunately both species usually choose to find a host instead.
Original Compared to the American Version
The two different types of the plant can be distinguished in several ways. Viscum Album is both the “original” and native species to Northern Europe and the United Kingdom. It is also the variety associated with the ancient Druids, Christmas, kissing, and many of the ancient medicinal uses known. It is a uniquely formed evergreen plant with sizes ranging from 12″ to 40″ in length. The leaves are strapped shaped and found in opposite pairs, with a leathery feel. The leaves can grow to almost 3″ in length and are yellowish-green colored. The berries are white or yellowish in color and contain one seed inside of a thick gelatin-like pulp, which is very sticky.
The American cousin looks much different and is usually only seen or spoken about near the Christmas season in the United States. The leaves and branches are non-symmetrical and the plant looks very ordinary. It too is an evergreen and produces white berries but they are hidden beneath much larger and heavier leaves than their European counterpart. It may come as a surprise that many Americans are unable to determine what the real plant looks like. Time and time again I’ve seen plants with red berries being touted as mistletoe, when in fact they are actually Holly. It’s very likely that the red berries and dark green leaves of the Holly plant offer a more Christmas-like appearance.
Medicinal Uses of Viscum album L.
Various medicinal mixtures utilizing mistletoe are known; some dating back several centuries. There are four major ailments most often mentioned in connection with these treatments, namely arthritis, epilepsy, infertility, and stress or hypertension. These treatments are available in Europe, but still illegal in the United States.
It is believed by some that mistletoe is an effective treatment for cancer, based on the work of an Austrian anthroposophical spiritual leader named Rudolf Steiner. In 1921, Steiner theorized that mistletoe could be used to treat cancer. He based that theory on the observation that both mistletoe and cancer were parasitic and lethal to their host. Based on this alone, Swiss and German clinics were founded with the sole purpose of advancing his theory to the clinical trial stage. There is no peer-reviewed scientific proof that mistletoe cures or improves the conditions of cancer.
Kissing Under the Mistletoe
Ask why we kiss under the mistletoe and depending where you are, you’ll get a different answer. There are some who believe the tradition morphed from an ancient Roman holiday known as Saturnalia. During this great festival, homes would be decorated with greenery. Since it was Rome, like most holidays, Saturnalia was a time of naked revelry and copious amounts of copulating. Couples would stop and kiss under the greenery, perhaps giving meaning to the modern tradition; but that is just one of the theories.
The most accepted belief is that the kiss originates in Norse mythology. In the tale, Baldur, son of Frigg and Odin, was loved by all for many reasons. But there came a time when he began to dream of his own death. His mother, fearful for her son, travelled near and far, contacting every being and so bidding them all to take an oath to never harm her son. The Gods themselves often toyed with him; even trying to kill him for sport, even though nothing could hurt him. They found it amusing.
Loki, the great trickster, pressed Frigga to tell if she’d overlooked any living thing during her journey of oath-seeking. She did confess that she passed over the tiny mistletoe, thinking it too small to matter. Loki, immediately upon learning this, fashioned a spear with a tip of the overlooked plant. He then convinced the blind God Hodr, to throw the spear, which fatally struck Baldur. The story goes on to tell of his time in the underworld. And there is no mistletoe mentioned. However another version of the story has a different ending.
in the other version, Frigg wept white tears onto the deadly spear, which turned to berries. She placed these berries on her sons mortal wound and miraculously he was revived; once deceased, now brought back to the world of the living. Frigg, as a way of making amends and giving thanks simultaneously, blessed the plant. She also promised anyone a kiss who walked beneath it.
Another, although less known, explanation was said to originate from the Celts. They would place a sprig of mistletoe above the door of their houses and its sacred nature prohibited fighting beneath it. This simple concept was supposed to have evolved over centuries into the current custom.
Other Mistletoe Lore
In Scandinavia, mistletoe was considered a plant of peace, under which enemies could declare a truce or warring spouses kiss and make-up.
Mistletoe has always been considered a magical, good luck plant. Lovers who kiss beneath it will have lasting happiness and carrying a sprig on your person will ensure good luck, protection and fertility.
Hanging it in the home was supposed to protect it from disease, lightening, werewolves and having your children switched with faerie changelings.
Birds can eat the berries, but they are toxic for human consumption.
Celtic priests known as Druids revered all trees, but especially the oak tree and the mistletoe that grew on it, according to Roman author and naturalist Gaius Plinius Secundus (also known as Pliny the Elder). At the winter celebration of Samhain, the sacred oaks were bare except for the green boughs of mistletoe, and this was taken as a sign of eternal fertility. It’s also the origin of why the Celts hung mistletoe in their doorways; it began as a fertility sign.