Gardeners' Dirt: Mystique of the mistletoe

By Jean Knowles - Victoria County Master GardenerEdited by Charla Borchers Leon
Dec. 12, 2013 at 6:12 a.m.

Mistletoe is recognizable by its smooth-edged, oval evergreen leaves on a woody stem with waxy white berries in clusters of two to six.

Mistletoe is recognizable by its smooth-edged, oval evergreen leaves on a woody stem with waxy white berries in clusters of two to six.

To most of us, mistletoe is usually considered a poisonous parasite or a Christmas decoration involved with light-hearted stealing of a kiss. With a history dating back centuries, today's mistletoe probably originated in Great Britain or other European countries and is usually spread by bird inhabitants that eat the fruits. Let's look at the facts and history.

Poisonous parasite

There are more than 500 species of mistletoe, but the common American-grown one that we are familiar with is sometimes known as a partial parasite. As a parasitic plant, it grows on the branches of a tree and sends out roots into the tree to get water and nutrients. But because the leaves contain chlorophyll, it is able to produce its own food by photosynthesis.

Grows on hardwood trees

Mistletoe is able to grow independently of a host, but the American mistletoe is most often found growing as a parasite on oak, elm, ash or other hardwood trees.

Forms multiple masses

Mistletoe grows into masses of branching stems, which are home to birds and other animals. It is a source of food for some birds that then spread seeds to other branches and trees. Though the mistletoe does not actually kill the tree, if the tree is host to multiple masses, sufficiently weakens the host tree so that it is susceptible to other factors.

Poisonous to small children, pets (especially cats)

The white mistletoe berries are considered poisonous especially to small children and pets, cats in particular. The effects of ingestion of the berries include slowing and weakening of the heartbeat and narrowing of the blood vessels in the skeletal muscles as well as the skin. Some sources identify severe stomach cramping and diarrhea that can be fatal.

Ancient remedy

The Druids and ancient Greeks were the first reported to have used the European mistletoe for health benefits. The Druids used extracts from the berries to treat many types of medical conditions from alleviating headaches to barrenness in animals.

For centuries, mistletoe has been used in folk medicine as a digestive aid, heart tonic and sedative. It has been reported to be used for everything from bed-wetting to asthma and cancer to epilepsy.

History of customs

Magical properties; passion and fertility

Pagans regarded mistletoe as a religious symbol that possessed magical properties as it was considered effective curing ailments, in bringing good luck and defending against witchcraft. It was also believed to inspire passion and increase fertility. The Druids used it in both mid-summer and winter solstice ceremonies.

Protection from evil; lawful marriage

In the Middle Ages, it was the belief that hanging branches of mistletoe from the ceiling protected homes as well as their inhabitants from evil spirits. In some parts of Europe, it was placed over doors of stables and barns to keep the witches out. Vikings believed mistletoe possessed the power of bringing the dead back to life. Romans used mistletoe to make their marriages lawful by kissing under the branch.

Emblem of love; plant of peace

One Scandinavian legend says that after Balder, the god of peace, was killed with an arrow made of mistletoe, the goddess of love was given the mistletoe for keeping. It was then ordained that everyone who passed under it should receive a kiss to show that the branch had become an emblem of love rather than hate. This evolved into the belief that mistletoe was a plant of peace under which enemies could declare a truce or warring spouses could kiss and make up.

In 18th-century England, the "kissing ball" was developed with a folklore that included burning the ball on the 12th night to make certain that all those who kissed under it would not marry.

With magic, witches and fertile marriages traditions of the past, current Christmas custom involves hanging a brightly decorated branch of mistletoe over a door, and whoever is caught under it cannot refuse a kiss - a lot more fun than warding off witches.

May you be rewarded - or even surprised - with a kiss under the mistletoe from that special someone this holiday season.

The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or, or comment on this column at



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