Mistletoe's legend is as complicated as its biology


I’ve always wondered about that lore of kissing under the mistletoe, and after countless movies on the Hallmark channel, I thought it might be fun to investigate just where this all started. How could a parasite become something so mystical?

There are two types of mistletoe. The mistletoe we see as a Christmas decoration (Phoradendron flavescens) is native to North America and grows as a parasite on trees in the west and in a line down the East Coast from New Jersey to Florida according to The Holiday Spot blog. The other type of mistletoe (Viscum album) is European and grows as a green shrub with small yellow flowers and white sticky berries. The mistletoe is often found on apple trees and rarely on oak trees.

Now this is where our mystical friend is botanically complicated. Mistletoe can be a parasite, which grows on the branches or trunk of a tree and actually sends out roots that penetrate into the tree and take up nutrients. But mistletoe is also able to grow on its own, making its own food by photosynthesis.

Beginning in the earliest times, mistletoe was one of the most magical and sacred plants of European folklore. According to The Holiday Spot, it was thought to bestow life and fertility. In addition, you could use it as protection against poisoning. Greeks considered this parasite to have mystical powers, and so you see it mentioned in many folklore stories.

The Celtic Druids would cut the oak mistletoe with a golden sickle on the sixth night of the “moon white.” Prayers would go out that recipients of this mistletoe would prosper. Our custom of using mistletoe to decorate houses at Christmas is a souvenir of the Druid and other pre-Christian traditions.

So why do have the famous ritual of kissing under the mistletoe? It’s thought to have begun at the Greek festival of Saturnalia and later with primitive marriage rites. The mistletoe was believed to bestow fertility. Also the mistletoe was thought to possess life-giving powers. In Scandinavia, mistletoe was considered a plant of peace, placed near to where enemies could declare a truce and make up. Later in 1700s England, this mystical plant was formed into what became known as a “kissing ball.”

At Christmas time, a young lady standing under a ball of mistletoe cannot refuse to be kissed, or so goes the lore. This kiss can mean deep romance or lasting friendship or goodwill. The lore continues that if the girl remains un-kissed that she cannot expect to marry the following year. Once again, I remain truly amazed at the complicated and wonderful history of most every plant I have ever researched. What an amazing world!  

Joette Reger is an avid gardener and prides  herself on staying up-to-date on the latest gardening activities and tips. She can be reached by e-mail at joreger [at] msn [dot] com and on Facebook at “Gardengate with Joette Reger.”