Does mistletoe have a dark side, or is it just one big conundrum? Like so many traditions, there is a dark side to mistletoe. Who knows what the real truth is of this very English, American, and Canadian Christmas tradition?
The kissing tradition started in England in the 18th century, and is said to have been started by a lusty and inventive boy and a gullible girl.
In Norse mythology, there was a story about the goddess Figg. She lost her son, the god Baldur, to an arrow made of mistletoe, believed to be the only plant on earth that could affect her son. It was likened to the reaction of kryptonite on superman.
Figg vowed that mistletoe would never again be used as a weapon, following the death of her son. She spread the story that a kiss stolen underneath mistletoe would bring good luck and declared it a symbol of love.
Ghost Chasers Dark Side of Mistletoe
Mistletoe was not associated with Christmas in medieval times. Instead, the dark side of mistletoe included it being hung over the doors of homes and stables to prevent witches or ghosts from entering. Isn’t it interesting what attributes the human mind gives to ‘things’?
In ancient Rome mistletoe was viewed as being sacred and was gathered with a golden sickle. The dark side of mistletoe was that two white bulls would then be sacrificed.
In England the dark side of mistletoe has been lightened into a festival. There is s an annual Tenbury Mistletoe Festival, on the 3rd December, when mistletoe is auctioned off. This has been celebrated for the past 100 years and now includes crowning the Mistletoe Queen and other festival events.
This only proves that things are not what they always appear to be.
Mistletoe’s Dark Side
Mistletoe, a hemiparasite, is deposited into the tops of trees and shrubs by birds. Hemi means the mistletoe produces limited energy through photosynthesis in its green leaves, that are there all year round, as are the flowers. This means it does not take all its needs from its host, but the dark side of mistletoe is that it is a killer.
The sticky seed attaches itself to a suitable host, and sends out roots that penetrate the host, drawing on it for nutrients and water. Trees infested with mistletoe die early because of the parasitic growth.
A favourite host of mistletoe is apple trees, reaping havoc in orchards. Even to remove the unwanted hemiparasite is to do damage to the tree.
The Anglo-Saxon meaning of the word mistletoe is ‘dung-on-a-twig. Another name given to the plant is Phoradendron, which is Greek for ‘tree-thief’.
A mature mistletoe plant grows thick and often in rounded masses of branches and stems. They can end up looking like a basket, sometimes called ‘witches brooms’. These can reach 5-feet wide and weigh 50 pounds. However, it takes several years for mistletoe to reach Christmas decoration size.
Many types of birds nest directly in these witches brooms. Tree squirrels have also been found to nest in the mistletoe. Photos of mistletoe in deciduous trees in winter, makes them look like they have huge tufts on the end of the branches. Or as if they are wearing old-fashioned hand muffs.
Give It a Shot
Mistletoe is not all that easy to find as it grows high in the tops of trees. Another dark side to mistletoe is that many try to get the mistletoe down by quite literally giving it their best shot. The problem with using a gun is that it is not only dangerous, but the mistletoe, of course, gets beaten up.
A Georgia man was arrested on charges of reckless conduct and illegally firing a weapon when he tried to shoot mistletoe out of a tree, near a shopping centre. The 66-year-old was handcuffed instead of stealing a kiss under the mistletoe. He wasn’t the only one to be arrested for trying to shoot mistletoe out of a tree.
Exploding Seed Pods
As if trying to shoot mistletoe out of a tree isn’t enough, there are the exploding seed pods to contend with. There really is a dark side to mistletoe. Not satisfied with just being a parasite, the plant reproduces itself in a very insidious way.
The ripe white berries of dwarf mistletoe explode, ejecting seeds at an initial speed of 60 miles per hour. This scatters the seeds as far as 50 feet from the parent plant. The moral is you wouldn’t want to be anywhere near an ejecting seed pod.
This puts mistletoe into the same category as poisonous, squirting cucumber, violet pedate, jewelweed, and mimosa pudica (touch-me-not). These plants all use explosion as natural Seed Dispersal, or Exploding Dehiscence. However, none is more spectacular than the exploding seed pods of the sandbox tree, commonly known as the dynamite tree. It launches its seeds at 70 metres per second, or 160 mph. Nature is indeed a wonder to behold.
Over many centuries, mistletoe has been used by the Druids and the ancient Greeks, to treat a battery of ailments. These include leprosy, worms and labour pains. Mistletoe has also been used to lower blood pressure, to stimulate the immune system, epilepsy, infertility, menopausal symptoms, hypertension, headaches, nervous tension and asthma. Sounds like one of those ‘Cure-all’ scams that are prolific on the Internet, with a ‘kiss of a different kind’.
In Europe mistletoe extract has been injected and used as a complementary therapy to combat the side effects of chemotherapy in cancer patients and in treatment for cancer itself. The type of host tree, the time of year harvested and how the extracts are prepared, all play major roles in the use of mistletoe therapeutically.
The misuse of mistletoe for cancer treatment is about a 100-years-old, yet many still believe in it, despite weaknesses in the reliability of current clinical trials.
Believe it or not, some species of mistletoe has been placed on the endangered list. Globally, more than 20 species of mistletoe are listed as endangered.
Worldwide there are 1,300 species, with over 30 species in the USA and Canada, not to mention what is found in England and other countries. There are different types of mistletoe, such as deciduous mistletoe, fir mistletoe and pine mistletoe.
We have many Christmas traditions that we know little about their origins, such as giving presents, the Christmas tree, Santa Claus, to singing carols. The thing is, we all enjoy the festive season with family and friends, and that is what really counts. Have a Merry Christmas and if you find you are on your own, remember it is only one 24-hours in the year and it too will pass. Sit back and enjoy some good reading and a glass of wine.
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