Originally, mistletoe was a stately tree but legend has it that the tree was degraded after part of its wood had been used for the cross of Christ and it was condemned as a humble parasite and left to be despised.
Botanically speaking, mistletoe never grew into a horticultural plant and was never raised for commercial purposes which is probably because it belongs to a large family of parasites.
With over 900 species of mistletoe, American Mistletoe (Phoradendron flavescens) grows wild in the USA and we recognize it's small rounded, light yellowish-green leaves along with the small soft white berries in the fork of the stem which adds a natural looking ornamental quality to properly dress the host tree.
Unless you’re handy at telling these 900 species of mistletoe apart, consumption of any mistletoe is not recommended. Also, be sure to refrain from letting your pets get too close for this plant has been deemed toxic to cats, dogs and horses by the ASPCA.
American Mistletoe is not poisonous to humans, but another species, European Mistletoe (Viscum album) is.
This pretty, poisonous parasite never actually kills a tree though; in fact, the strength remains with the tree, as the mistletoe is not that kind of a parasite that depletes its life-force, it merely takes some water and some minerals away from it for its own survival. Over time however, American Mistletoe, the species that decorates our chandeliers and door thresholds here in Arkansas, may weaken the health of a tree or lessen its fruiting capacity.
The Yuletide mistletoe is found mostly on deciduous hardwood trees and junipers, and is well known here in the South, where it is taken from the host trees as a complete plant.
Norse mythology is intriguing to me. Odin racing across the cosmos on an eight-legged horse. Thor bashing heads with a miniature sledge hammer. Frey making things grow and hanging out with elves. What’s not to love?
It is no wonder that the custom of kissing under the mistletoe twig has Norse origins.
Baldur was the beloved son of Odin and Frigg. Frigg, the counterpart of Venus, asked every creature ‘which lives on or in the earth’ to swear never to harm him. But Loki, the disloyal trickster of the gods, knew that one living thing did not live either ‘on or in the earth’: mistletoe, which lived entirely off the branch of a tree.
But, even among the gods, there was enmity.
Tricked and guided by Loki, Baldur was struck by an arrow that had been made entirely from mistletoe. Loki, the blind god shot this mistletoe-tipped arrow killing invulnerable Baldur. This arrow had not come in contact with any of the four elements, air, water, earth, and fire. The tears of Frigga are believed by many to be the white berries of the mistletoe.
Through the concerted effort of the gods, Baldur was restored to life, and Frigga decreed the mistletoe a sacred, magical plant for all eternity. Never again should the mistletoe do harm to anyone and forevermore it shall exist as something special for all those passing under it.
Thereafter, mistletoe was believed to have mystical, magical, romantic overtones. Because mistletoe could blossom even during the frozen winter, and because it was found high on tall branches of trees with no apparent roots humans believes the gods had magically dropped it there to exist and to give it purpose.
Living in the forest in caves, Druids were the medicine men and the astrologers. Their congregation was sworn to secrecy. The Oak tree was sacred to the Druids and they also believed that the mistletoe came upon them as a sacred symbol of vivacity. In those early years, they administered it to humans and animals alike in the hope of restoring fertility for the sticky white sap of the berry was thought to have an aphrodisiac-like quality. The fact that mistletoe remained green all winter while its host tree looked lifeless also added to its magic.
Druids were the teachers and priests performing of rites. From their rites, however, one description was handed down and it is this description that reveals the importance and significance of the mistletoe and why it is regarded as a sacred plant.
"The chief Nature festival of these worshippers was held five days after the new moon as a ceremonial rite of the Winter solstice. Men, women and children went to the forest. They moved toward the oak tree that had the most mistletoe on it … First came the bards, then a herald. As they came in sight of the tree, they hailed it with loud shouts of delight and reverence. In the midst of this group, one figure towers — the Arch-Druid. A golden chain was about his neck: gold hands were around his arms. He was clad in flowing white robes. He ascended the tree to the lowest bough on which the sacred mistletoe was growing. With a golden sickle, he chopped the branch and allowed it to fall in a fold of his ample robes. This plant was so sacred that it must never touch the earth. The priest then broke the branch in many pieces, and gave a twig to each of his followers with a prayer that each one who received a branch should find divine favor and a blessing from Nature.”
To druids living in Gaul, Britain and Ireland, the plant symbolized eternal life.
As tradition continues, even today, sprigs with berries also play a role in this playful custom where a person standing beneath the mistletoe must forfeit a kiss and then pick one of the glossy white berries to be kept as a charm.
This power of the mistletoe ends when there is one last berry on the sprig. After all berries are picked, no more kisses are available. Therefore, only the sprigs with the fruit still upon it are filled with magic.
Merry Christmas! Be sure to have your moment under the mistletoe this year.💋