Common Name: American Mistletoe – Old English misteltan from mistel meaning dung and tan meaning twig, Birdlime, Herbe de la Croix, All-Heal, Golden Bough.
Scientific Name: Phoradendron serotinum – The generic name is from the Greek phor meaning thief and dendron meaning tree as it “steals” nutrients from the host tree. Additional species include P. flavescens with yellow flowers and P. leucarpum with white berries.
Potpourri: Mistletoe is hemiparasitic in that it is a green plant that photosynthesizes its own food while simultaneously getting water and nutrients from the host tree. When a mistletoe seed germinates, it emits thin root-like structures called haustoria that penetrate the bark of the host tree and extend up to a foot inside the branch. Healthy trees can tolerate a few mistletoes, but the branch to which it is affixed may die. In some cases, an abnormal growth called a witches’ broom may form to further damage the plant.
Mistletoe produces small, sticky white berries that are very attractive to a variety of birds, particularly the thrush; the European missel thrush having been so named for this behavior. When the birds feed on the berries, they excrete the living seeds that then adhere to the branches in the vicinity. This explains why infestations of mistletoe typically occur in clusters in the upper branches of trees where birds perch.
The etymology of the word mistletoe is subject to some conjecture. The most common assertion that it derives from the belief that mistletoe grows from bird dung (hence dung twig). Another possible derivation is from the old Dutch word mist, meaning birdlime, as the berries were used to make birdlime, a sticky substance used to catch birds. Mistle may also derive from mistl, meaning different, as the mistletoe differs from its host tree. In Brittany, it is known as Herbe de la Croix, as it was believed to have been the wood used to make the cross on which Christ was crucified. The mistletoe was purportedly turned into a parasite due to this transgression.
Mistletoe was revered by the Druids as a sacred and magical plant. They conducted an elaborate ceremony at the both the winter and summer solstices in which they donned white robes and searched the woods until they found mistletoe, severing it from the tree with a golden knife. They believed that the possessor of the mistletoe was protected against all manner of evil, and they sent their acolytes around with branches of mistletoe to herald the New Year. Its reputed powers included curing diseases, increasing human and animal fertility, and keeping one safe from witches. It was called all-heal in Celtic.
In Norse Mythology, Balder, the god of light and son of Odin and Frigga, became troubled by dreams that he would die. As this would end all light and life, Frigga extracted a pledge from every living thing to do no harm to Balder. She overlooked one plant, however; the lowly parasite mistletoe. Loki, the Norse pantheon’s mischievous god, learned of this and fashioned an arrow of mistletoe and persuaded a blind god named Hod to shoot it at Balder, killing him. Frigga asked if anyone would descend into the kingdom of Hel, the Norse god of the underworld, to rescue him. Hermod, another of Odin’s sons, descended but Balder was lost. The tears shed by Frigga are said to have been the source of the pearly white berries of the mistletoe.
In Greek Mythology, mistletoe figures into the legend of Aeneas, who, according to Virgil’s Aenead was the legendary founder of Rome on his return from the Trojan War. Aeneas wished to go to Hades to visit his deceased father to learn of his future. In order to get to Hades, he had to pass through a dark and impenetrable forest. Two doves guided him to a mistletoe plant, which provided a flickering light as a golden bough. When he emerged from the forest, he confronted the ferryman Charon with the bough, who reluctantly agreed to take him across the river Styx where he met his father.
Since the Middle Ages, the use of mistletoe in superstitious rituals and medicinal decoctions has been well documented. It was tied in bunches and hung over doors to protect both humans and animals from witches and other demons. It was placed in cradles to protect infants from faeries. In Sweden, it was kept in the home to prevent fires, possibly due to a belief that mistletoe came to a tree due to a flash of lightening. It was widely used in the treatment of epilepsy due to its purported lessening of the convulsive nervous actions. In Sweden, epileptics carried a knife with a handle made of mistletoe wood to ward off attacks. The English custom of kissing under mistletoe is believed to have started with the Celtic notion that mistletoe improved fertility. A young lady standing beneath a mistletoe bough cannot refuse to be kissed. However, if she is not approached by a willing young man, she will not marry in the following year.