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Mistletoe

This article was originally published on December 1, 2009 and expired on December 31, 2009. It is provided here for archival purposes and may contain dated information.

A popular part of the American holiday season is kissing under the mistletoe. One tradition holds that kissing under the mistletoe increased the possibility of marriage in the coming year. In North America the tradition began in the 1880's.

Mistletoe is one of the most magical, mysterious and sacred plants of European folklore and has long been a symbol of love, peace and goodwill. Traditions involving mistletoe date back to ancient times. Mistletoe was widely used centuries before Christ as a religious symbol in pagan rituals. The ancient Druids of Britain used mistletoe to celebrate the coming of winter. Mistletoe was so sacred to the Druids that if two enemies met beneath a tree on which mistletoe was growing, they would stop their battle and claim a temporary truce.

Most of us know mistletoe as the sprig of small, leathery green leaves and white berries tied with a red ribbon. American mistletoe, Phoradendron leucarpum, is an evergreen shrub that is native to the United States. It can primarily be found growing in the tops of hardwood trees in the eastern U.S. from New Jersey to Florida and west to Texas and Illinois. It is hardy to zone 6 and is found in the southern most counties in Illinois. There are other species of mistletoe in western North America that are parasites on conifers. Most mistletoe sold during the holiday season is harvested in Oklahoma and Texas.

In Greek, the scientific name, Phoradendron, means "thief of the tree." All mistletoe species grow as semi-parasitic plants, living off the tree it attaches itself to. Mistletoe has specialized tissue (hasutorium) that grows into the host plant and combines with the living tree. While mistletoe plants have green leaves that supply some energy, they rely on their host for water and minerals supply. This dense evergreen mistletoe cluster is often found growing on trees such as oak, elm and poplar. The bushy clumps are easily observed in fall and winter when the host tree has shed its leaves. Mistletoe seeds are spread mainly by birds who feed on the berries. Birds digest the pulp of the berry and excrete the living seed.

Even though mistletoe has inconspicuous yellow or white flowers (so small their barely visible), it was adopted in 1893 as the official state floral emblem of Oklahoma. (This was 14 years before Oklahoma became a state.) Mistletoe appropriately represented the landscape of Oklahoma. It is reported that mistletoe served to decorate settler's graves when no other flowers were available. In addition, the evergreen mistletoe was said to symbolize the perseverance of early settlers.

A word of caution, mistletoe is toxic and should not be ingested. While severity of toxicity may vary, keep mistletoe out of reach of children and pets. For safety reasons, some companies have replaced the berries with artificial, plastic berries.

Source: Jennifer Fishburn, Extension Educator, Horticulture, fishburn@illinois.edu

Pull date: December 31, 2009

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