From the garden of Beth DiGioia
When the trees have lost their leaves, look up and you will sometimes see clumps of round green foliage on the branches of pecans and oaks. It’s Mistletoe, a semi-parasitic plant that attaches itself to hardwood trees and extracts water and nutrients from its host. It’s not considered a major threat to trees, but can cause some growth loss and damage to branches. In severe cases, it can weaken a tree, making it more vulnerable to insects and diseases. When its seeds sprout, they grow through the bark and deep into the tissues, so the most effective way to fight it is to remove an infected branch entirely.
Mistletoe is not a plant you want to cultivate, but if you want to identify it, here are some tips. The variety native to North America is Phoradendron flavescens. Mistletoe is an evergreen, perennial plant that forms a bush that can grow to 2-3’ round. It has thickly crowded, forking branches and round, jointed stems. The dark green, oval shaped, leathery leaves are around 2” long. Mistletoe produces white berries in the fall.
From ancient times, mistletoe has been one of the most magical, mysterious and sacred plants of folklore. The Druids (members of the priestly cast in the ancient Celtic religion) worshipped the oak tree and mistletoe was especially revered because they believed it possessed magical qualities that kept the sleeping oak alive during the cold winter days. Because it stayed green all winter, it was said to increase life and fertility. It was also believed to provide protection from witchcraft and banish evil spirits. Despite the fact that it contains a poisonous substance called phoratoxin, mistletoe has a history of medicinal use. It has been used for centuries to treat seizures, headache, infertility, hypertension and arthritis. It has also been used as an antidote to some poisons.
Early Christian leaders wouldn’t allow the use of mistletoe in churches because it had been so important to early pagan religions, but as these religions fell into obscurity, mistletoe took on new Christian religious significance. Christian folklore says that it was originally a tree, but when its wood was used for the cross of Christ, it shrank to its present size and was doomed to live on the strength of others.
The pure white berries against the dark green leaves is very striking and attractive and it makes sense that the custom of using mistletoe to decorate houses at Christmas survived. Bunches of mistletoe can be tied together with ribbon and hung from the tree, and sprays can be tucked into evergreen mantle decorations and wreaths. A popular decoration is the kissing ball, which is hung in doorways and provides an excuse to steal a kiss. Kissing under the mistletoe is thought to have originated at the Greek festival of Saturnalia (an ancient festival in honor of the god Saturn) and was later incorporated into marriage rites. In Scandinavia, mistletoe was considered a plant of peace, under which enemies could declare a truce or warring spouses could kiss and make up.
Present day kissing balls are brightly trimmed with evergreens, ribbons and ornaments. If a girl isn’t kissed under the mistletoe she will not marry the following year. In some parts of England the Christmas mistletoe is burned on Twelfth Night to assure that all the girls and boys who have kissed under it will marry. At one time in France, the custom of kissing under the mistletoe was reserved for New Year’s Day, but today kisses can be exchanged any time during the holiday season.
No matter what the history of the kissing ball is, it has evolved into a fun and innocent holiday tradition. To make it merrier, consider mixing up this recipe I found on Mountain Cravings called “Mistletoe Kiss” that can be prepared by the glass or the pitcher. In fact, Kate has created a 12 Drinks of Christmas series, and you might want to check them out to have something new to serve at your holiday parties.
For more information about gardening, visit our McKinney Gardens page