Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Every Kiss Begins With...Mistletoe?

And you thought Kay Jewelers had the corner on this market, didn’t you?

There are several theories on the origin of the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe.  One theory dates back to ancient Norse mythology.    The Reader’s Digest version of the story is that the son of the goddess Frigg was killed with a spear made of mistletoe.  When the son, Baldr, was brought back to life, Frigg declared that from that point on mistletoe would bring love rather than death into the world. People kissed under the mistletoe to remember Baldr’s resurrection, bringing the promise of happiness and good luck in the following year.   

Folklore abounds when it comes to mistletoe.    Another legend dates back to the ancient Babylonian-Assyrian Empire where mistletoe was hung outside the temple for the goddess of beauty and love.

Mistletoe was also seen as a supernatural healing plant, and the Greeks believed it to be an aphrodisiac that promoted fertility.  It was even put under the beds of newlywed couples to bring good luck.

In Scandinavia, mistletoe was considered a plant of peace.  Under the peace-promoting plant, enemies could declare a truce or warring spouses would kiss and make up.   In Europe, branches of mistletoe were hung from ceilings to ward off evil spirits.

In England young men would kiss women standing under the mistletoe and would pluck a berry from the bush after each kiss. After all the berries were gone, it was bad luck to continue kissing under that bush.

With all that love, peace, and kissing attributed to the mistletoe, you’d think everyone would be clamoring to have one or two.  But this is where the romance ends, my friends.

The Old English (Anglo-Saxon) word for Misteltoe was mistiltan --   "Mistel" meaning "dung" and "tan" meaning "Twig", i.e., "Dung-on-a-twig."   Not so lovely anymore, is it?     

Mistletoe produces a white berry that is part of the diet of many birds.  The seeds are coated with a sticky gelatinous substance.  When the seeds are excreted in bird droppings, the seeds stick like glue to twigs and limbs until they germinate.

When the mistletoe seeds germinate, root-like structures called haustoria penetrate the bark and grow into the xylem (the water conducting tissue of the tree limb.)  Mistletoe is a parasite that lives off the tree as its host.  The water and nutrients needed for its growth and development are taken from the tree’s sap.

Small limbs infested with mistletoe can be pruned.  Limbs must be cut at least 12 inches beyond where the mistletoe attaches to the limb in order to completely remove the embedded root system.

When mistletoe is growing on large limbs or on the tree’s trunk, pruning is no longer practical.   

Just cut the mistletoe off flush at the point it attaches to the limb or trunk.  Only mature plants (2-3 years old) produce berries.  You may reduce the spread of the plant if you can remove the mistletoe plant before it reaches maturity and produces seeds. 

Another option is to cut off the mistletoe plant and then wrap the area with a few layers of black plastic for one to two years.    This may be an effective control of the plant, since mistletoe also requires chlorophyll and sunlight in order to survive.  Once again, the size of the tree and location of the mistletoe will determine how practical it is to try this technique.  Safety first!

There is currently no herbicide recommended for the control of mistletoe in trees.  Because the mistletoe’s haustoria basically become intertwined with the tree’s vascular system, chemical controls could cause injury to the tree. 

Some trees seem to be more susceptible to mistletoe.   Cedars, junipers, pecan, live oak, and magnolia trees are rarely infected with mistletoe.   However water oak, Spanish oak, elm, and hackberry trees are frequently infested with this parasite. 

So does having mistletoe mean the kiss of death for your tree?  Not necessarily.  Mistletoe may not kill a tree outright, but heavily infested limbs are stressed, and this can increase the tree’s susceptibility to other problems.     

Now that the trees are dropping their leaves this winter, the evergreen mistletoe will be very visible.      Hopefully you can safely remove it, and you and your trees can kiss this parasite goodbye! 

I hope the only mistletoe you find this year is the kind that brings a little love, peace, and a kiss or two. 

Toni :-)


  1. Wow that is a lovely and informative post. I know about mistletoe from the myth and the wreath supposed to be a mistletoe, but not its characteristics. This is something very western and brought to us but doesn't fit us because we don't have this parasite. However, we also have a lot of parasitic plants here in the tropics. But i really love the way you composed this article. Merry Christmas and happy holidays.

  2. Good post. I have a couple of trees that are filled with mistletoe. We've had them cut out, trimmed, etc., but it didn't seem to do much good. We know we will lose these two favored trees eventually. Before I became a gardener, I would hang mistletoe, but no more. I don't want to see it anywhere now!

  3. Thanks for all the great info on Mistletoe. I had heard it was parasitic to some trees, but I didn't realize it was so bad. I've always thought of Mistletoe as kind of awkward, but it is kind of pretty.

  4. A great history Toni. I'm most interested that mistletoe always seems to be viewed in a positive light by many widespread cultures...despite its parasitic nature. I wonder why it has such a good reputation to the human soul?

  5. Awesome pictures!:)
    A great blog site ;)

  6. @Andrea: Thanks for your kind comment. Glad to hear you do not have mistletoe in your neck of the woods!
    @HolleyGarden: Oh, no! So sorry to hear that you have it in your trees :-( It know it is tough to battle. The pictures in this post are from trees within walking distance of my yard, so I'm just hoping the birds don't decide to land in my trees after eating the berries!
    @PlantPostings: Yes, mistletoe is a rather pretty plant with the rounded leaves and white berries. But I'd rather admire its "beauty" from afar than in my garden!
    @Prof: Yes, does seem to be a contradiction in terms, doesn't it?
    @Logan: Thanks for visiting, Logan!

  7. I am glad you posted all the information and tales on mistletoe. I had no idea how it originated and was told through history. I really only knew two things about it, one, the kissing under it story and two, the parasitic nature. I always wondered how such positive stories came from such a noxious plant. I never saw it around here, but it really seems happy in the trees you showed. Interesting info about how birds spread it too.

  8. Toni, I was amazed reading this post, and after hearing about it's parasitic nature, now I feel the common name (s..t on a stick) is more fitting. Wow. I thought we had it bad with grapevines climbing up into the trees, this is much, much worse!

    I'll never look at mistletoe the same way again. Great post.


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