Mistletoe is a parasite. We can’t get around that. And it carries a lot of romantic notions for those who love Christmas and Christmas decorations.  

The plant’s mystical connotations may derive from the notion that it just appears in trees without roots. This time of year, it’s easy to spot in deciduous trees – it’s those little green clusters up there in trees otherwise bare of leaves by now.

Perhaps the ancients didn’t know that the mistletoe seed, when eaten by birds, passes through the bird’s system and is deposited in the tree in the bird’s droppings – seed, glue, and fertilizer all in one package. Sticking to the branch, the seed germinates and sends root-like structures beneath the bark where it takes advantage of water and minerals from its host plant. If the host tree is healthy, it can probably tolerate a sprig or two of mistletoe. In advanced cases branches may die and the tree may decline visibly. Science knows no cure except amputating the limb.

Still, we are a romantic people and enjoy mistletoe’s traditions.  Like many Christmas decorating ideas, this one originates in pre-Christian mythology from the Scandinavians and Celts. Mistletoe was seen as a representation of the divine male essence – man things like romance, fertility, and vitality. Well one out of three ain’t bad. Today young men have the privilege of kissing girls found lingering under the mistletoe.  More recently, people seem to have rediscovered ancient medicinal uses of mistletoe. Abandoning some of these old medicinals is in part responsible for increased life spans in more modern countries where we now understand that the mistletoe berry is toxic if eaten.

So what is mistletoe good for?  It’s a parasite; it’s a male thing; and it’s toxic. What a great tradition!


Al Cooke is an Extension Agent for Horticulture in Chatham County for N.C. Cooperative Extension.

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