A brief world history of mistletoe

If you happen to be hanging that amorous sprig of a plant called mistletoe in the parlour this holiday season, I would be willing to wager that two of the last things you are thinking about while clambering up the ladder are vampires and bird dung.

As we all know, this cherished Christmas decoration is mainly used around this time of the year as an excuse to give a great big kiss to anyone who happens to be standing in its general vicinity. But the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe is just a small part of a long and fascinating history that has evolved through ancient Druid rituals, Norse mythology and Victorian playfulness.

So where do bird poop and vampires fit in? The answers are in its name and the parasitic manner in which it grows.

Most plants are given their common names because of a unique shape, colour or a specific characteristic of their growth, although the meaning of mistletoe is somewhat more graphic than most. It was originally called ‘misteltan’ which comes from a mishmash of languages – ‘mist’ in German means dung, and the old Anglo-Saxon word ‘tan’ means twig. Put the two together and it literally translates into ‘dung-on-a-twig.’

It was given this peculiar name because early Europeans noticed this tree-dwelling herb seemed to emerge out of splotches of dung deposited by birds seen feeding on the small white fruiting bodies of nearby mistletoe plants.

All I can say is, it’s a good thing this Old-English language was more or less extinct when the lyrics for that holiday chestnut It Must Have Been the Mistletoe were written. I suspect Barbra Streisand’s velvety vocal would have lost a substantial amount of its romance and festive flavour as It Must Have Been the Dung-on-a-Twig.

The ‘vampire plant’ angle comes from the fact that all of the more than 1,500 varieties of mistletoe grow on trees and are either parasitic or hemi-parasitic, meaning they need a host from which they can take all or most of their nutrients. When bird droppings containing an undigested seed land on a suitable branch, the germinating seedling extends a root-like structure called a haustoria, which penetrates deep into its host’s bark. Like a plant version of Bela Lugosi, these newly-formed roots ‘bite’ into the vascular system of the tree and begin to suck out the water and sugars the seedling needs for growth.

There are two main varieties of mistletoe commonly used during the Christmas season. The semi-parasitic European mistletoe, Viscum album, and the Eastern mistletoe, Phoradendron serotinum – the latter growing on hardwood trees in the warmer southern climes of  North America. Of  the two, it is the European species that is the stuff of legends, superstition and folklore.

The Druids treated it as a gift from the heavens and revered it in their rituals as a magical healing plant. When they found it growing among the branches of their sacred oaks (druid means ‘oak-knower’),  it was cause for feasting and wild celebrations, culminating in a solemn ceremony during which a priest would harvest the plant with a golden sickle, with helpers standing by to catch the falling plant before it hit the ground, to preserve its magic.

Later on, as the Vikings were romping around Europe, they added their own ideas about the plant’s magical powers. To them it was a symbol of fertility, good luck and peace, emphasized by their belief that if two enemies should meet under a growth of mistletoe, the combatants were obligated to embrace and lay down their weapons for a one-day truce.

Ironically,  it was the straight-laced Victorians who really brought the plant back into the mainstream after centuries of condemnation by the Christian church as a symbol of paganism. During a period of mass obsession with Celtic and ancient Druid cultures they resurrected some of the myths and mythology associated with mistletoe, one of the strangest being the practice of hanging a sprig above a cradle to prevent the young child from being abducted by fairies. However, the big attraction for them was the enduring tradition of kissing under the mistletoe, and they eagerly began hanging it from their doors and inside their homes as a symbol of peace, goodwill and romance. It was common practice to hang large Christmas balls and bells made of mistletoe at family gatherings and social events, where Victorian lotharios were let loose to pursue a rare and sometimes scandalous display of public affection and courtship.

However, it’s not all merriment, smooching and protecting babies from fairies when it comes to some species of the plant.

Dwarf mistletoe is a leafless variety (making it useless for Christmas celebrations), that is found growing in colder climates of North America, including Ontario and the prairie provinces. Without foliage and the ability to produce its own food, the plant lives entirely off the host, making it a serious pest of conifers in Canadian forests where heavy infestations can actually kill the tree, and the mistletoe itself, in a rare form of plant suicide. Because of this aggressive habit, the dwarf variety doesn’t hang around waiting for birds to spread its seeds, preferring instead to use a unique and explosive method of dispersal. During the ripening process its berries build up a tremendous hydrostatic pressure which causes them to violently detonate, firing sticky seeds like buckshot at speeds up to 90 km/h and reaching distances of 10 to 20 metres. Despite the haphazard aim, some of the seeds manage to hit potential hosts and grow into new plants.

These days mistletoe is not the magical pagan symbol it once was, but it is still in big demand as a much-loved seasonal novelty. Unfortunately, that old saying ‘money doesn’t grow on trees’ came true in 2011 for Texas growers who account for 95 per cent of the North American market. A severe drought decimated the plants and it may take as long as five years to recover. Suppliers to major plant retailers in Toronto are already reporting shortages this year after crop failures in both Texas and California. As a result, finding a fresh sprig of  mistletoe may be likely as, well, finding a vampire and some dung-on-a-twig amongst the Christmas decorations.

Steven Chadwick is a professional gardener/ horticulturist, and longtime Beach resident

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