I went hunting once. It was early December, more than 10 years ago, when I went with a friend to the Eastern Shore of Maryland. We had permission from a local farmer to comb his property for our quarry. Armed with only a BB gun (or maybe it was a .22-caliber rifle) my friend shot into the tops of oak trees while I scoured the ground picking up the fallen prey. My first hunting experience was a success. That year I brought home Phoradendron flavescens, more commonly known as American mistletoe.
There are approximately 100 species of mistletoe native to the United States. American mistletoe, the kind gathered and sold as a holiday decoration, has a well- developed shoot, jointed stems and small 3-lobed, white flowers. Dark green leathery leaves and tiny white berries give mistletoe its holiday appeal. American 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 they obtain part of their food from an external source. The plants absorb food from the sap of trees 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. American mistletoe does photosynthesize its own food and gets only water and minerals from the host tree, but little carbon. Though this mistletoe may slow the growth of tree branches, it does not permanently damage its host.
Mistletoe is more damaging to people because it contains a systemic poison, affects all parts of the body, and can be fatal. However, Native Americans as well as Europeans have used mistletoe for medicinal purposes.
Though mistletoe berries are poisonous to people, they are relished by cedar waxwings, bluebirds and other songbirds. Birds often wipe the seeds off their beaks 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 which allow seeds to pass through without being ground. 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, or sticky, layer containing chemicals that speed the seed through the digestive system. This same layer helps deposited seeds stick to limbs and twigs of host plants. So sticky is this substance that in Europe, mistletoe was used as bird lime. The sap of mistletoes and hollies was once smeared on branches to snag perching birds.
Poisonous and parasitic, mistletoe seems an odd choice as a symbol for winter holidays. One must remember that mistletoe and other evergreens that bear fruit in winter were considered sacred in many ancient cultures. This may be because mistletoe, with its winter flowers and berries manifested life when most other plants were bare.
The Celts, a group of Indo-European people distributed from the British Isles and Spain to Asia Minor during the Iron Age, used mistletoe in their winter solstice celebrations. The golden flowers were a symbol of the light of the sun. It was believed that, during the winter, the oak tree god lived in the mistletoe after the oak leaves died.
During the winter solstice, around Dec. 22, a white-robed druid, would climb a sacred oak and cut mistletoe with a golden sickle. As the plant fell, it was caught in a white cloth. Mistletoe was not allowed to touch the ground for fear that witches could harm it. Today, it is still considered unlucky to let mistletoe fall to the ground. The druids blessed mistletoe on their altars and then gave sprigs of it to the local inhabitants. The townspeople would to wear mistletoe for luck or hang it over their doorways to ward off evil.
Mistletoe, also known as all healer, was believed to be a remedy against poison and a cure for infertility and epilepsy. Since the plant grew high in the trees and never touched the ground, epileptics ate it to keep from falling down. Other Europeans, including the ancient Greeks, also believed mistletoe possessed the power to heal sickness and avert misfortune.
Mistletoe, also known as goldenbough, appears in ancient Roman myths. When Aeneas traveled to the underworld to visit its queen, Persephone, he brought mistletoe as a gift.
The custom of kissing someone standing underneath a mistletoe bough also seems to have originated in the Old World. Out of Scandinavia, a Norse legend links this plant with ancient gods. In the legend, Balder, the god of light, dreams of his own death. He tells his mother, Frigga, the goddess of marriage and families, about this horrible premonition. In an effort to protect her son, Frigga asks all the plants and animals not to harm her son Balder.
However, she forgot to ask the lowly mistletoe plant. Loki, the god of evil knew that mistletoe was overlooked. Loki made an arrow tip out of the plant and gave it to Hoder, the blind god of darkness. Hoder shot the arrow, striking and killing Balder. Frigga begged the other gods to bring her son back to her. The tears she shed landed on the mistletoe plant and became the berries. Finally, Balder regained his life. In her joy, Frigga kissed all who passed under the tree on which the mistletoe grew. From that day on, anyone standing under it would receive this token of love.
Another association between kisses and mistletoe comes from lower Austria. There, mistletoe is part of the New Year celebration. On New Year's Eve, a wreath of greenery is hung in the middle of an inn or parlor. In the corner of the room hides a masked figure known as Sylvester. He is old and ugly and wears a wreath of mistletoe. According to this custom, 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 because of custom or availability, people have always associated 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 in the gray and brown landscape of winter.