What’s Behind the Mystery of Mistletoe?

Thereís more to mistletoe than simply being a holiday decoration. From ancient Norse myths to modern cancer treatment, mistletoe has long been sought after for its magical and medicinal properties. These are some highlights from this notorious plantís history.

What is mistletoe?

The mystique of this plant starts with how it grows. Mistletoe is whatís called a hemiparasite. In other words, it can grow parasitically on the branches or trunk of a tree. It can also grow in the ground like a regular plant.

But it is most commonly found growing as a parasite, where it sends roots into the host tree and takes nutrients directly from the sap. Birds primarily spread the sticky, white berries of mistletoe to other trees. The seeds can then take hold on a new host.

Two main types of mistletoe exist. The mistletoe thatís commonly used for decorating is Phoradendron flavescens, a native North American variety that grows on trees from New Jersey to Florida. The other type is European mistletoe, Viscum album, which is most common on older apple trees. It occasionally grows on oak trees, and this rare oak mistletoe was highly coveted by ancient Europeans. It was thought to have greater power than the common apple mistletoe.

Druid traditions

The oak mistletoe was especially sacred to the ancient Celtic Druids. They went out to search for the sacred plant dressed in white robes. When a specimen was found, one of the Druids would climb the tree and gather the mistletoe with great ceremony. They would cut it off the oak with a golden knife. Mistletoe was only cut at a certain phase of the moon and only when the Druids received visions directing them to seek it.

It was gathered at both mid-summer and winter solstices. The priests sent their young attendants around with mistletoe branches to announce the beginning of the new year. It is likely the custom of decorating houses with mistletoe is a survival of Druid and other pre-Christian traditions.

Norse legend

Mistletoe also holds a place in ancient Norse mythology.

The story goes that Balder, the god of summer sun, received a prophesy that he would die. His mother Frigga, goddess of love, spoke to all the plants and animals of the natural world to secure their promise that no one would not harm her son. But she overlooked speaking to the mistletoe.

Loki, god of evil, took advantage of her oversight and made an arrow out of mistletoe. This was used to kill Balder. It is said the tears Frigga shed for her dead son became the pearly white berries on mistletoe, and her love brought Balder back to life. Frigga declared mistletoe a symbol of love and decreed that anyone who ever stands under it will receive no harm, only a kiss as a token of her love.

Whatís up with kissing under mistletoe?

The Norse gods werenít the only ones who associated mistletoe with love.

Kissing under mistletoe was first recorded as part of the Roman festival of Saturnalia. This was an ancient Roman festival in honor of the god Saturn, who represented agricultural bounty. It was held on December 17th each year.

It has also been associated with primitive marriage rites. This likely came from the ancient belief that mistletoe promotes fertility, due to the fact it can blossom even during the frozen winter months.

Mistletoe was considered a plant of peace in Scandinavia. It was said enemies could declare a truce under the plant or warring spouses could kiss and make-up.

In the 1700s, the English created what was called a kissing ball. It was brightly decorated with ribbons, evergreen branches and ornaments. A young lady standing underneath the ball could not refuse to be kissed. If she did not receive a kiss, she could not expect to marry the following year.

Another twist on the story is that couples could pluck a single berry from the mistletoe with each kiss and had to stop once the berries were all gone.

Medicinal uses

Mistletoe has been used medicinally by many different cultures throughout history.

Ancient Greeks used it as a cure for many conditions, from menstrual cramps to spleen disorders. In Roman times, it was used to treat epilepsy, ulcers and poisons. Also, the Druids administered mistletoe to humans and animals to promote fertility.

Currently, mistletoe is primarily used as a treatment for cancer in Europe. Research has shown that mistletoe kills cancer cells and boosts the immune system.

The shoots and berries are made into extracts that can be taken orally or by injection. The injections are available with a prescription in Europe. Whereas, mistletoe injections are only available in clinical trials in the United States.

Any variety of mistletoe is poisonous in its raw form. Unprocessed, fresh mistletoe can cause vomiting, seizures, a reduced heart rate, and even death. European mistletoe is the variety typically used for medicinal purposes. The American species is considered unsafe for any type of consumption.

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124 comments

Sonia M
Sonia M9 months ago

Interesting article thanks for sharing

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Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Jim Ven
Jim V2 years ago

thanks for the article.

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Donna T.
Donna T2 years ago

Thank you.

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Camilla Vaga
Camilla Vaga2 years ago

thanks

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Amit Arora
Amit Arora2 years ago

thanks :)

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Sara S.
Sara S2 years ago

Mistletoe certainly has an interesting history.

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Paula Lambert
Paula Lambert2 years ago

Interesting! Thanks for sharing!

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Rhonda B.
Rhonda B2 years ago

Thank you.

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Roberto M.
Past Member 2 years ago

THANKS

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