Mysterious, magical, mystique mistletoe


Not many plants bloom during frozen winters, but the mysterious, magical, mystique, evergreen mistletoe (from the Old English misteltãn), with its yellowish flowers (male and female flowers are found on different plants) and white, but poisonous berries, does. It reveals itself now epically, as the cold weather made the leaves drop from its deciduous, dormant host trees.

We’ve got loads of Viscum album (the European mistletoe) in the surrounding fields, hundreds of them on single almonds (hardwood) trees. But they can also be found on apple trees, oaks, elms, lime, blackthorn, hawthorn, willow and poplars, waiting for the birds to eat their waxy berries and carry their seeds away to make sure they can spread around.


The mistlethrushes and blackcaps love its flower nectar and the stickiness of its berries, making them wipe their beaks on branches of other trees, causing within six weeks, a new mistletoe plant to grow (although it will need five years to flower). Ninety species of birds in ten families are considered mistletoe specialists!


Long time ago it was “the” Christmas greenery, as popular as holly, and even sold in the market place during the Yule season. Nowadays it’s still known for kissing under it, still providing good sells during the Christmas season, but also loved as supplemental cattle feed (stems and foliage) during harsh winters. The mistletoe that is commonly used as a Christmas decoration (Phoradendron flavescens) is native to North America.

Less romantic but also true, according to Sara Williams at the University of Saskatchewan Extension:

It was observed in ancient times that mistletoe would often appear on a branch or twig where birds had left droppings. ‘Mistel’ is the Anglo-Saxon word for ‘dung,’ and ‘tan’ is the word for ‘twig’. So, mistletoe means ‘dung-on-a-twig’.


This flowering plant (angiosperm) is a “hemiparasite”, it lives on other plants, but is partially self-sufficient. It has its own leaves to collect sunlight for energy, like other plants it can produce its own food by photosynthesis, but it is deriving nearly all of its host’s nutrition and water, sending a special kind of root system (called “haustoria”) down into their hosts in order to do so, often causing deformities in branches, not killing its own host as is often said. If you cut some off, don’t be afraid to cut of too much, as any living mistletoe tissues that remain are capable of regenerating into whole plants!

When mistletoe drops its leaves, it provides abundant nutrients to the forest floor, new nutrients can always be stolen from the host…

Growing on the branches of the sacred oaks, mistletoe was supposed to contain its life and had to be cut off (whether or not with the druids’ golden sickle) at a particular age of the moon (sixth night) at the beginning of the year, to preserve its so-believed healing powers. Amazingly enough it is proven now that some of its chemical compounds are effective in treating cancer, and it is used as a complementary treatment to decrease the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation, especially in Europe.


Ancient cultures believed that mistletoe could open all locks. The French only reserve it for New Year’s Day: “Au gui l’An neuf” (Mistletoe for the New Year). In the 16th century they regarded it as a protective and luck-bringing plant. It was also a “Specter’s Wand”, the holder could see and make ghosts speak. In the 1900’s burnt mistletoe was a good luck charm, carried in small bags around when conducting business or handling money. Farmers would bury burned mistletoe in bags in their fields,, to have a good harvest.


Superstition has it that the mistletoe once offended the old Gods, forever condemned afterwards to look on while girls are being kissed. They were used to be hung over doorways as protection against thunder, lightning and other evils, the oak mistletoe could even extinguish fire. One sprig above the front door, and one above the kitchen door suits me.


I stay cautious though, as its berries can cause severe stomach cramps and diarrhea, and in some cases can be fatal. So I make sure that children or pets won’t be able to get to them. Then again in a French work on domestic remedies, 1682, Mistletoe (gui de chêne) was considered of great curative power in epilepsy. Already in medieval times, the plant called “allhea”l, was used medicinally for a variety of ailments, from epilepsy to cancer.

No excuses to skip kissing here however, I stick to the Roman legend and view it as a symbol of peace and friendship, enemies will have to lay down their weapons and embrace before entering my house or at least hold their truce till the next day. It is also said that it keeps witches out of houses…

And young men, did you know and we go back to Victorian times now, that with each kiss one berry has to be plucked of the bush and yes once all the berries plucked, the privilege ceases! Even more important: the kiss might be interpreted as a promise to marry within the year… but it also predicts happiness and long life!

Still believing in making the season bright, with this magical, mysterious, vivid, festive symbol of peace and joy. Remember: “What happens under the mistletoe, stays under the mistletoe!”


PS Don’t buy mistletoe-scented candles, as the plant has no scent!





off evil spirits. In Europe they were placed over house and stable doors to prevent the entrance of witches.. This was associated with an earlier belief that the mistletoe itself could come to the tree during a flash of lightning. The traditions which began with the European mistletoe were transferred to the similar American plant with the process of immigration and settlement.

Kissing under the mistletoe is first found associated with the Greek festival of Saturnalia and later with primitive marriage rites. They probably originated from two beliefs. One belief was that it has power to bestow fertility. It was also believed that the dung from which the mistletoe would also possess “life-giving” power. In Scandinavia, mistletoe was considered a plant of peace, under which enemies could declare a truce or warring spouses kiss and make-up. Later, the eighteenth-century English credited with a certain magical appeal called a kissing ball.

At Christmas time a young lady standing under a ball of mistletoe, brightly trimmed with evergreens, ribbons, and ornaments, cannot refuse to be kissed. Such a kiss could mean deep romance or lasting friendship and goodwill. If the girl remained unkissed, she cannot expect not to marry the following year. In some parts of England the Christmas mistletoe is burned on the twelfth night lest all the boys and girls who have kissed under it never marry. Whether we believe it or not, it always makes for fun and frolic at Christmas celebrations. Even if the pagan significance has been long forgotten, the custom of exchanging a kiss under the mistletoe can still be found in many European countries as well as in Canada. Thus if a couple in love exchanges a kiss under the mistletoe, it is interpreted as a promise to marry, as well as a prediction of happiness and long life. In France, the custom linked to mistletoe was reserved for New Year’s Day: “Au gui l’An neuf” (Mistletoe for the New Year). Today, kisses can be exchanged under the mistletoe any time during the holiday season.

For its supposedly mystical power mistletoe has long been at the center of many folklore. One is associated with the Goddess Frigga. The story goes that Mistletoe was the sacred plant of Frigga, goddess of love and the mother of Balder, the god of the summer sun. Balder had a dream of death which greatly alarmed his mother, for should he die, all life on earth would end. In an attempt to keep this from happening, Frigga went at once to air, fire, water, earth, and every animal and plant seeking a promise that no harm would come to her son. Balder now could not be hurt by anything on earth or under the earth. But Balder had one enemy, Loki, god of evil and he knew of one plant that Frigga had overlooked in her quest to keep her son safe. It grew neither on the earth nor under the earth, but on apple and oak trees. It was lowly mistletoe. So Loki made an arrow tip of the mistletoe, gave to the blind god of winter, Hoder, who shot it , striking Balder dead. The sky paled and all things in earth and heaven wept for the sun god. For three days each element tried to bring Balder back to life. He was finally restored by Frigga, the goddess and his mother. It is said the tears she shed for her son turned into the pearly white berries on the mistletoe plant and in her joy Frigga kissed everyone who passed beneath the tree on which it grew. The story ends with a decree that who should ever stand under the humble mistletoe, no harm should befall them, only a kiss, a token of love.

What could be more natural than to translate the spirit of this old myth into a Christian way of thinking and accept the mistletoe as the emblem of that Love which conquers Death? Its medicinal properties, whether real or imaginary, make it a just emblematic of that Tree of Life, the leaves of which are for the healing of the nations thus paralleling it to the Virgin Birth of Christ.


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