Christmas is coming and an interesting tradition attached is that of mistletoe.  Ironically, mistletoe is a hemiparasite, meaning partially parasitic.  It can still photosynthesize but usually takes resources from other plants, mainly hardwood trees.  It grows roots into the the branches of the trees leeching water and nutrients from its hosts.  Occasionally from far away it looks like birds in a far away tree when there are only small bunches.

KODAK Digital Still Camera

Or it can be so prevalent that a tree that otherwise would look dead for the winter appears green and leafy.KODAK Digital Still Camera

Either way, mistletoe tends to be high up in the trees, and therefore is actually fairly difficult to get down.  And yet, people have been getting it down for centuries, whether it be this kind found on the American continent or the other species in Europe. American mistletoe is easy to distinguish because it has 10 or more waxy white berries per clump, while the European species has only 3-7.

KODAK Digital Still Camera

large clumps of berries

People harvest this parasite and some even make some good money off of it. So how and why do they do it?  The how is a much simpler question to answer.  In general people shoot it down.  That’s a whole different level of hunting, but has been quite a sport.  It used to be a competition, especially among men, to see who could shoot down the biggest clump.

As to the why, it all links back to mythology.  Mistletoe is actually a sacred plant to several cultures.  Greeks used it for all kinds of healing.  Celtic druids viewed it as a symbol of vitality and fertility because it lives through winter.  And Norse mythology has a story about it as well, that ends with kissing as a celebration around mistletoe.  It is interesting that it sucks life from other plants but is connected with fertility and kissing.

Most recently it comes with the tradition that a man may steal a kiss from any girl standing under mistletoe, and if a girl refuses it could curse her love life, basically.  Also after the kiss a berry should be plucked from the mistletoe, and after it’s been stripped of its berries the plant should be burned, to ensure fertility and good luck in love for any who kissed under it and plucked a berry.

So next time you see a festive clump of mistletoe, I hope you’ll have something new to think about.  Merry Christmas!!

-Shana Nealy


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