University of Vermont Extension
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Winter Holiday News Article

A KISS UNDER THE MISTLETOE

Contact: Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont

 

Most people associate mistletoe with kissing as it's customary for anyone caught standing under a sprig of this plant (often strategically placed in a doorway) to receive a kiss. But did you know that mistletoe, now considered a Christmas plant, was used as a religious symbol in pagan rites centuries before the time of Christ? To the ancient Druids of Britain it was a sacred symbol with both magical powers and medicinal properties.

These ancient people believed mistletoe could cure diseases, make animals and humans more fertile, provide protection from witches, and bring good luck. In fact, mistletoe was so sacred to the Druids that if two enemies met beneath a tree on which it was growing, they would lay down their weapons, exchange greetings, and observe a truce until the following day!

When the Druids found mistletoe growing on an oak tree, they used a golden knife to remove it, taking care that the sacred plant did not touch the ground to protect its special powers. They then sacrificed a white ox to consecrate the event.

Mistletoe was not allowed in Christian places of worship for many years because of its widespread acceptance in pagan ceremonies. But it is not clear just how it became part of the Christmas holiday season.

Mistletoe is the common name for any one of a hundred species of plants of the Loranthaceae or Viscaceae families. The traditional Christmas mistletoe is the European species, Viscum album.

This slow-growing plant forms a drooping, greenish-yellow evergreen shrub that grows two to three feet long. The male and female flowers of the mistletoe are borne on compact spikes on separate plants. The tiny, yellow flowers that appear in late fall soon give rise to the familiar white berries.

Mistletoe will parasitize many hosts, among them apple trees, poplars, lindens, willows, and, more rarely, oaks. A botanical anomaly, it is the only complete plant considered a true parasite for it often kills the hardwood tree it infests.

Today most mistletoe is commercially harvested in Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. Vermont conditions are too cold for this plant although it grows in the wild in the southern states and as far north as W. Virginia.

The custom of hanging up mistletoe probably stems from the Druid tradition of laying down arms and exchanging greetings under the mistletoe. Kissing under the mistletoe is attributed to the English who, after every kiss, plucked a berry from the bunch and discarded it. When the berries were gone, tradition called for the kissing to stop. Needless to say, plentiful bunches were eagerly sought for the holidays.


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