In some parts of Europe the midsummer gathering of mistletoe is still associated with the burning of bonfires, a remnant of sacrificial ceremonies performed by druids. Mistletoe was once believed to
have magic powers as well as medicinal properties. The white berries contain a toxic substance which may have been used by Druids in ritual death rites.

Mistletoe is the original "shit on a stick". "Mistel" is the Anglo-Saxon word for "dung," and "tan" is the word for "twig". So, mistletoe literally means "dung-on-a-twig". The common name of the plant is derived from the ancient belief that the plant grew from from bird droppings. This belief was related to the then-accepted principle that life could spring spontaneously from dung. It was observed in ancient times that mistletoe would often appear on a branch or twig where birds had left droppings.

The Druids considered the mistletoe to be sacred and believed it could cure illnesses, serve as an antidote against poisons, ensure fertility and protect against witchcraft. They also enforced the law that whenever enemies met under mistletoe in the forest, they had to lay down their arms and observe a truce until the next day. This could be the source of the custom of kissing under a ball of mistletoe, as leaders of opposing armies would often embrace under the plant as a sign of friendship and respect.

Others say that the custom was derived from the legend of Freya, Anglo-Saxon goddess of love, beauty and fertility. According to that legend, a man had to kiss any young girl who, without realizing it, found herself accidentally under a sprig of mistletoe hanging from the ceiling.

Kissing under a ball of mistletoe is a widespread custom, found in many European countries, Canada, and the Americas. In some areas a kiss under the mistletoe is interpreted as a promise to marry as well as a prediction of happiness and long life. In France, the custom linked to mistletoe was reserved for New Year’s Day: "Au gui l’An neuf" (Mistletoe for the New Year).

There is a down side to all this smooching and lovey-dovey stuff however. Mistletoe poisoning happens far more frequently than most people would imagine this time of year. Mistletoe generally has whitish berries which can be tempting, but deadly. That's right...mistletoe poisoning can be fatal. The toxic amines are found in all parts of the plant, but the highest concentration is in the leaves.

The symptoms of mistletoe poisoning are similar to most poisonings; body weakness, blurred vision, nausea and abdominal pain, diarrhea, drowsiness and even hallucinations. A poison control center or a doctor should definitely be called, and vomiting should NOT be induced unless they specify it. Often mistletoe poisoning will warrant a trip to the emergency room where the patient can be monitored and the poison removed. The crucial period is the first 24 hours after ingestion. Virtually all fatalities caused by mistletoe poisoning have occurred during that time frame. If the first day is survived, prognosis for a full recovery is excellent.

Mistletoe has been used for centuries for its medicinal properties. It was used by the Druids and the ancient Greeks, and it appears in legend and folklore as a panacea. In the 16th century, mistletoe was used for treating epilepsy, and, subsequently, for a variety of nervous system disorders. Mistletoe in various forms has been used for hypertension, headache, menopausal symptoms, infertility, arthritis, and rheumatism. Interest in mistletoe as an anticancer drug began in the 1920s when extracts from the plant were found to kill cancer cells and stimulate the immune system. Mistletoe extracts are sold commercially to treat cancer in Europe and Asia, but haven't been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US yet, so aren't available in the US.

Mistletoe is the name given to a group of plants which are "hemi-parasites" on other plants. Most of them fasten themselves to the branches or trunk of a tree, although a few, like the Western Australian Christmas tree, are free-standing. All of them make use of some other plant to gain water and nutrients, although their green leaves perform photosynthesis. A seed of one of these plants, when it lands on a branch, will send out roots which worm their way into crevices of the tree and tap into its water supply. Some types of mistletoe even develop leaves which resemble those of the tree on which they live; one hypothesis is that they are taking in growth hormones along with nutrients, and receive the same "instructions" on leaf shape as their host. There are over a thousand members of the mistletoe family; the largest number live in the tropics. All of them are in the family Santalales, but they are not all in the order Loranthaceae, "showy mistletoes," (as dem bones states above); some are Misodendraceae, "feathery mistletoes," or Viscaceae, "mistletoe." And not all Santalales are mistletoes.

The plant usually known as just "mistletoe" is the European mistletoe (Viscum album). It has a great role in European folklore because it seems to survive with green leaves through the winter when other plants are dormant. Its white berries are extremely sticky, and birds that try to eat them often end up with one stuck to the side of their beak. This tactic works fairly well to spread the seeds inside the berries, since a frustrated bird will try to scrape off the berry onto any convenient branch, thus giving the mistletoe seed a place to germinate.

Australian mistletoes have gone one further with this seed-spreading tactic. Their seeds are so sticky that they remain so after passing through a bird's digestive system and losing their berry outside. The mistletoe bird, which digests these with unusual speed, often has to scrape the seed off its rear onto a branch, which again gives the seed a great place for sprouting once it's stuck to the wood. Some of these seeds will not germinate if they haven't been eaten and excreted by birds.

The pine mistletoe, found in the southwest U.S., relies on birds to some degree to spread its seeds, but also has another method. As its berries ripen, pressure builds up within them and their connection to the stalk they grew on gets weaker. Finally, the berry just bursts, and the seed within squirts out at an estimated speed of 45 feet per second; these seeds have traveled fifty feet, and like other mistletoes, they stick to whatever they land on.

Attenborough, David. The Private Life of Plants. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Mis"tle*toe (?), n. [AS. misteltan; mistel mistletoe + tan twig. AS. mistel is akin of D., G., Dan. & Sw. mistel, OHG. mistil, Icel. mistilteinn; and AS. tan to D. teen, OHG. zein, Icel. teinn, Goth. tains. Cf. Missel.] Bot.

A parasitic evergreen plant of Europe Viscum album, bearing a glutinous fruit. When found upon the oak, where it is rare, it was an object of superstitious regard among the Druids. A bird lime is prepared from its fruit.

[Written also misletoe, misseltoe, and mistleto.]

Lindley. Loudon.

The mistletoe of the United States is Phoradendron flavescens, having broader leaves than the European kind. In different regions various similar plants are called by this name.


© Webster 1913.

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