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Tales from a Plant Addict

Fun (& a few serious) facts, tips and tricks for every gardener, new and old.
Mistletoe-with-red-ribbon Smaller

Mistletoe Part 2-- The Legends

There are lots of legends told about mistletoe, but the familiar association with Christmas has its roots in Europe. The ancient Druids used a golden sickle to cut mistletoe from their most-revered tree, the oak as part of ceremonies celebrating fertility that included human sacrifice. Looking to the Druids for a direct link to kissing your sweetie at Christmas seems a bit of a challenge.

A Norse myth is believed to be the origin of mistletoe's link to kissing. According to the myth, an arrow made from mistletoe killed Balder, the son of Frigga, the goddess of love and beauty. The other gods resurrected Balder, and Frigga's tears of joy formed the white berries seen on the common European mistletoe species, Viscum album. Legend says that the berries represent kisses bestowed by Frigga to people that meet under the mistletoe. Some say that a berry should be removed from the mistletoe for each kiss, and that the mistletoe loses its "power" once all the berries are removed.

The name mistletoe comes from second century Anglo-Saxon descriptions of the plants as "misteltan," derived from the word "mistel" meaning dung, and "tan" meaning twig. These early people associated the appearance of mistletoe with droppings from birds on tree branches. Not exactly the most romantic legend around, but they did think there was some magical process at hand that spontaneously generated the resulting mistletoe plants.

A French legend links mistletoe to Christmas through Christ's crucifixion, using the fact that mistletoe is poisonous. According to the legend, the original mistletoe plant was growing on the tree that was made into the cross on which Jesus was crucified. This made the mistletoe cursed, causing it to be forever poisonous and a parasite, never allowed to grow independently on the ground.

Mistletoe may be poisonous, but at various times it has also been considered an aphrodisiac. Medically, it can be an abortifacient, meaning it will cause miscarriage of a pregnancy. Some writers have suggested this is one reason mistletoe is linked with fertility, which in some cultures also meant uninhibited sexuality and promiscuity. In any case, ingestion of mistletoe is likely to cause severe cardiac, digestive, and neurological malfunction and death is likely. You'd be wise to search for aphrodisiacs elsewhere!

Interestingly, the mistletoe celebrated in European folklore is usually the species Viscum album.The mistletoe sold in the U.S. is an assortment of species from a totally different genus, Phoradendron.

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