A GROWING CONCERN: Mistletoe: Both kisses and killer

WHILE DRIVING HOME last weekend from a performance by the Seattle ballet, mistletoe was the answer to the question of what this “pre-Christmas” column shall be — I’m sure it was because my female companion was both elegant and very charming.

How can there be such an ironic twist that the plant which symbolizes a stolen kiss is also extremely parasitical in the botanical realm, entirely poisonous and still somehow the cause of what we all saw Mommy doing with Santa last night?

So let’s unwrap this interesting, complex vining plant that has well over 1,400 species worldwide.

Make no mistake mistletoe, Viscum album, is a nasty parasite.

Truth in advertising, the common North American flowering woody, shrubby vine of lore’s genus name is Phoradendron, which means “thief of the tree.”

Its roots dissolve through the bark into the cambial layer of the tree, sucking out nutrients and moisture, and can even cause death.

Do you really want to kiss that?

But in nature, all things have a purpose and so does this infamous plant.

Numerous species of birds rely on the berries as their sole or primary food source, as well as nesting habitat.

No mistletoe and these birds would cease to exist.

As a very prolific bloomer, its flowers’ nectar feeds bees and butterflies at critical times in their life cycle allowing for their reproduction.

So is the circle of life, and in life, reproduction is where mistletoe starts its travel from tree to hanging above your holiday door.

Very early Christian cultures — especially the Celts, but even the ancient Greeks — believed mistletoe’s white berries symbolized male fertility.

Then in the Roman world, mistletoe came to symbolize peace, love and understanding, so it moved to above the door in order to protect the household from dark forces.

Never losing its dark side, a mistletoe arrow in Norse mythology was used by Loki as he tricked the blind god Hodor into killing his twin brother.

Mistletoe’s poisonous attributes also aided the Greek hero Aeneos in getting into the underworld.

Then as Christianity took hold across western civilization, mistletoe combined fertility and the solstice with courtship, love and longing.

In Germany, the Christmas tradition is that people who kiss under mistletoe will have enduring love.

In Victorian England, a man was allowed to kiss any woman who stands under the mistletoe, with bad luck for a year befalling those who refused.

Yet as its function and lore changed, its deadly side remained.

In medieval Europe, mistletoe was hung around the house to repel demons and witches because it was deadly.

In modern times it has now given way to a quaint and novel custom that has been incorporated into many a holiday song.

“Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree” has a couple seeking a kiss.

The British song “Mistletoe and Wine” combines these features.

“Mistletoe” sings its praises.

And we all can sing the aforementioned “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.”

So as the holiday nears, embrace those you love.

It comes from a long line of ever-changing tradition that we all should kiss, hold and love those we cherish now, with nothing bad befalling us.

You don’t need even a single sprig of mistletoe to express your joy and fondness to those you care about, so do not miss the chance.

Merry Christmas to you and yours, goodwill to mankind and peace for you all.


Andrew May is a freelance writer and ornamental horticulturist who dreams of having Clallam and Jefferson counties nationally recognized as “Flower Peninsula USA.” Send him questions c/o Peninsula Daily News, P.O. Box 1330, Port Angeles, WA 98362, or email news@peninsuladailynews.com (subject line: Andrew May).

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