Mistletoe magic: Parasite becomes seasonal celebrity


Although this little parasite is typically known for taking advantage of its host year round, this time of year it enjoys seasonal celebrity status. Sweethearts flock to stand beneath it while little children seek any alternate route to avoid it. It has even been the target of family traditions based on who gets to pluck or shoot it from its perch.


Like most traditions, the rituals associated with magical mistletoe have been passed down for generations as the plant itself continues to possess its own mysterious magnetism.


When not enjoying the spotlight during December, this hemi-parasite lives in virtual anonymity, camouflaged by green tree and shrub leaves, relying heavily on its host for life. Mistletoe is the common name for obligate hemi-parasitic plants in several families in the order Santalales. While mistletoe can produce its own food through photosynthesis (hence the hemi-parasitic designation), the plant must penetrate its roots into the tree or shrub in order to obtain water and mineral nutrients.


While you might have a hard time spying this evergreen hanging on during the spring and summer, it makes a more striking appearance during winter when the trees are bare. Mistletoe isn’t specific to any particular tree or shrub. It can be found on almost any deciduous plant in the woods--from oaks to elms to cherries to hackberry trees.   


Though mistletoe can be destructive to trees if present in large quantities, it has been recently recognized as an ecological keystone species (an organism that has a large-scale influence over its community). Mistletoe can have a significantly positive effect on biodiversity. A host of animals, especially birds, depend on mistletoe for food, consuming the leaves and young shoots, transferring pollen between plants, and dispersing the sticky seeds.

During the Christmas season, mistletoe makes its way indoors—over a doorway or hallway, strategically placed for decoration or by those seeking to steal a kiss. The tradition of using mistletoe to decorate modern American homes during the season has its roots in Druid and other pre-Christian, European history. To these groups, mistletoe was considered sacred.


The Druids were fascinated with mistletoe’s evergreen presence on dormant trees during winter. They are believed to have cut the plant ceremonially from oaks with a golden knife on the sixth night of the moon in order to cure sterility and counteract poisons.


Later in history, the ritual of cutting the mistletoe from the oak tree came to symbolize the emasculation of the old king by his successor. Long regarded as both a sexual symbol and the "soul" of the oak, mistletoe is assigned magical, mysterious and sacred properties throughout European and Greek folklore – from bestowing life and fertility to being an aphrodisiac. This led to the legendary “kissing” tradition, which states that any time a young lady or man is standing under the mistletoe, he or she cannot refuse to be kissed. If the person remained un-kissed, he or she could not expect to marry in the coming year.


In addition to the allusions to affection, mistletoe was also hung from ceilings and doors to ward off evil spirits in the Middle Ages and later placed over home and stable doors to prevent the entrance of witches.


Whatever your reason for enjoyment of the plant this season, pause to ponder the perplexities of this parasite and how it has captured the attention of cultures throughout history with its magic and mystery.

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