Mistletoe has a long history of use and customs in Europe. As Europeans moved to North America, they brought some of these customs with them.
North America supports many species of mistletoe, including one native to the East Coast, Phoradendron leucarpum, more commonly known as oak mistletoe.
Mistletoe, gathered and sold as a holiday decoration, has a well-developed shoot, jointed stems and small, three-lobed white flowers. Dark green leathery leaves and tiny white berries give mistletoe its holiday appeal. Oak mistletoe is distributed throughout the Southeast from southern Ohio, Illinois and Kansas, east to New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and south to Florida and eastern Texas.
This evergreen does not grow in soil but on the tops of tree branches. Mistletoes are hemiparasitic, meaning the plant absorbs some of its food from tree sap through specialized roots called haustoria. There are two broad groups, or genera, of mistletoe. Plants in the genus Phoradendron grow on the branches of deciduous (leaf-dropping) trees such as oaks, gums, elms and maples. Dwarf mistletoes, genus Arceuthobium, feed on conifers (cone-bearing trees).
The scientific name Phoradendron comes from the Greek words phor and dendron, meaning tree thief. Actually, not all mistletoes deserve this reputation. Oak mistletoe does photosynthesize its own food and gets only water and minerals from the host tree, but little carbon. Although this mistletoe may slow the growth of tree branches, it does not permanently damage its host.
Mistletoe contains a systemic poison that can be fatal to people and pets. Even so, Native Americans and Europeans have used mistletoe for medicinal purposes.
Cedar waxwings and other songbirds, though, relish mistletoe berries.
Birds often wipe the seeds off their beaks and onto other branches, helping to spread the plants. Seeds are also dispersed by bird droppings, particularly waxwing droppings. The word mistletoe can be traced back to similar words in Old English, Norse and German, all meaning dung branch.
Cedar waxwings, like many fruit-eating or nectar-eating birds, have nonmuscular stomachs that allow seeds to pass through without being ground up. The seeds of mistletoe berries are small and soft, lacking a seed coat. They are protected from a bird's digestive juices by a viscid layer containing chemicals that speed the seed through the digestive system.
This same layer helps deposited seeds stick to limbs and twigs of the host plant.
Poisonous and parasitic, mistletoe seems an odd choice as a symbol for winter holidays. Mistletoe and other evergreens that bear fruit in winter were considered sacred in many ancient cultures. This may be due to the fact that mistletoe, with its winter flowers and berries, manifested life when most other plants were bare.
The Celts used mistletoe in their winter solstice celebrations. The golden flowers were a symbol of the light of the sun. It was believed that the oak tree god lived in the mistletoe after the leaves fell.
Europeans also believed mistletoe possessed the power to heal sickness, avert misfortune and repel evil forces.
Mistletoe appears in ancient Roman myths. When Aeneas traveled to the underworld to visit Persephone, the goddess of the seasons, he brought mistletoe as a gift.
Kissing underneath mistletoe originated in the Old World. One story for this custom comes from old Austria. On New Year's Eve, a wreath of greenery is hung in the middle of an inn. A masked figure wearing a mistletoe wreath, Sylvester, hides in the room. If a woman walks under the wreath hanging from the middle of the room, Sylvester springs out and plants a kiss on her cheek. When midnight comes, Sylvester is driven out, representing the passing of the old year.
Today, mistletoe is still used for holiday decorations. Whether it is due to customs, seasonality or availability, people associate certain plants with the changing of seasons and upcoming festivities.
As winter creeps upon us, the once-ignored evergreens, like mistletoe, holly, spruce and fir, stand out, brightening the cold landscape with bright colors of green, red and gold.