24 December 2009

Mistletoe Isn't Just for Holiday Kisses

As you look at the mistletoe hanging in local trees, do you ever wonder what it is and why it grows in trees?
Traditionally, a few stems of the plant are tied with a red ribbon and hung where friends, family and even a few strangers will get a kiss. No holiday party should be without it.

European mistletoe, Viscum album, is not toxic and was used to treat a wide variety of physical and emotional symptoms.

Today, European mistletoe extracts are used in the treatment of cancer and HIV/Aids.

American mistletoe is Phoradendron with clusters of white-pink berries that mostly hang on deciduous trees.

Ours is toxic so do not eat it.

There are many myths and mysteries about mistletoe. References contradict each other but here are a few of the concepts.

Druids worshipped mistletoe that grew on oak trees.

They called it all-heal and considered it their most sacred plant for what they believed were its healing qualities. They saw it as a symbol of the return of the sun after the winter solstice since it has a golden color. A priest in a white robe climbed the tree to harvest the gold, shimmering plants.

Shakespeare called it the baleful Mistletoe because in a Scandinavian legend an arrow of mistletoe killed the god of peace, Baldur.

His life was restored and he was put in the care of Frigga, goddess of love or marriage, and everyone who walked under the mistletoe was supposed to kiss.

This myth that Balder had been resurrected, lead to the Vikings believing that mistletoe could raise the dead.

Mistletoe was also sacred to the Ainos of Japan, and some African tribes.

During the Middle Ages mistletoe was hung in ceilings to ward off evil spirits. In Europe mistletoe hung in doors and prevented witches from entering. In England and Wales, farmers fed mistletoe to the first calf of the New Year to bring good luck to the herd.

American mistletoe (Phorandendron serotinum or flavescens) grows in trees from the eastern coast of the United States to Oklahoma. Most of the mistletoe sold throughout the country is grown in Texas and OK. It was the state flower of OK from 1893 to 2004.

Thomas Nuttal named the plant. The translation of the Greek name, Phoradendron, is thief of the tree. Mistletoe is not a parasite, it is a partial parasite or hemiparasite; it roots in host trees and uses the tree’s nutrients to supplement its own photosynthesis.

There are actually 1300 species of mistletoe that grow around the world. Only two are native to the U.S. Twenty species are endangered.

Even though our association with mistletoe is romantic, the naming of the plant is much less so. Mistal means dung. Tan means twig. So, mistletoe means dung on a twig.

The high protein, sticky, seeds, attach to birds' beaks and feathers. When birds clean their beaks on tree branches, the seeds are planted. The seeds also stick to squirrel fur.

Dwarf mistletoe plants their progeny in a different way: The seeds explode, spraying 50-feet out onto surrounding trees.

The great purple hairstreak, the thicket hairstreak and the Johnson hairstreak butterflies court, mate, lay their eggs and raise their caterpillars on Mistletoe. The nectar feeds bees as well. (See http://tinyurl.com/yafsknh)

Kissing under mistletoe is a Greek tradition. During the holidays, some companies replace the poisonous berries with plastic ones. Whether you opt for plastic or the real thing, hang up some of this ancient herb and get a kiss.

2 comments:

Dee/reddirtramblings said...

Great article on Mistletoe. I stumbled it.~~Dee

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