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The History Behind Mistletoe
Fun Facts About Mistletoe
Mistletoe is a staple of the Christmas season. For centuries, the plant has been hung in doorways and from ceilings in the chance that two young lovers may sneak a kiss. But do you know what mistletoe is and how it came to be recognized as the Kissing Plant?
Although there are different types of mistletoe, the most common variety is European mistletoe (Viscum album). It is a parasitic plant that grows on trees throughout Europe and Great Britain. You can identify the plant with its smooth-edged, oval, evergreen leaves borne in pairs along a woody stem, with waxy, 2-6 white berries. Because it is a parasite, when mistletoe attaches to a tree, it most likely kills the branch where it grows, as it digs into the wood and sucks up all of the nutrients.
Mistletoe is Poisonous
To human beings, that is. Even still, the plant was used in medicine in Ancient Greece. Hippocrates recorded it's use in the treatment of menstrual cramps. Throughout the centuries, other physicians have used the plant to treat leprosy, infertility, epilepsy, and even cancer. Right now, there are some studies that mistletoe extract may help in the prevention of colon cancer cells. Regardless, consider the plant poisonous to you and don't ingest it! You don't want to eat the stems, leaves, or the berries. However, mistletoe is a source of food for birds and other animals. The plant is actually cross-pollinated to other trees because of this food source. A bird will eat the juicy berries but the seeds will pass through their systems. If they happen to excrete their droppings on a tree, the mistletoe will take root and grow. The word "mistletoe comes from the Anglo-Saxon word mistel, which means "dung" and tan, which means "stick". Literally, the name of the plant means "dung on a stick". Not quite the expression of love we all thought it to mean!
Mistletoe in Culture
We all know mistletoe is associated with a Christmas decoration so you can get a kiss. But when did it come about that kissing under a poisonous plant was a good idea? The practice of kissing under the mistletoe originated in the Norse lands of Scandinavia. It was here that the Norse god, Baldr, second son of Odin and god of light, love and beauty, was made invincible to everything but mistletoe. Jealous of his half-brother, the god, Loki, fashioned an arrow out of the plant and killed Baldr with it. Baldr's mother, Frigg, was so distraught, that her tears formed the white berries on the mistletoe and she decreed the mistletoe would never again be used in an act of violence. In it's stead, a kiss would be placed upon those who passed underneath it.
The story made it's way west with the Viking expansion into England, France, and Germany and finally became a part of the Christmas tradition. Today, most mistletoe is not real, but a plastic model of the plant, but in Europe, it was a ritual to pull one berry off the plant to indicate that you wanted a kiss. When all of the berries were gone, the plant lost it's magical powers!