Watch Where You Step: The Legend of Mistletoe
Decorating with mistletoe has been a holiday tradition for many centuries in North America and Europe. It begs the question: Why do we have this strange tradition that prompts friends, family, and even enemies to kiss when they meet underneath mistletoe?
“Perhaps you have been one of the lucky—or unlucky—few that have found yourself under the mistletoe for a kiss,” says University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator Chris Enroth.
It is widely accepted that the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe began in the 16th century, but the history of the plant goes back much farther than that. Mistletoe is considered one of the most magical, mysterious, and sacred plants in European folklore.
It was used in ancient times, centuries before the birth of Christ, by Druid tribes living in what is considered modern-day Great Britain. In fact, the plant was so sacred to the ancient Druids that if two enemies met under the mistletoe, they would lay down their weapons and exchange greetings. Druid priests would harvest mistletoe with a golden knife and pass it around to celebrate the new year.
Mistletoe was banned from Christian ceremonies for many years because of its pagan origin, but Christian leaders eventually incorporated the plant into decorations and celebrations to draw in the old tribes of Britain and Europe.
The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe began in 1520 when William Irving wrote, “A young man should pluck a berry each time he kisses a young girl beneath the hanging plant, and once the berries were gone the romantic power of the plant faded.” Hence, many gentlemen sought mistletoe cuttings with an abundance of berries to hang in their homes.
“In addition to its interesting history, mistletoe is also an interesting plant,” says Enroth.
It is a true parasite and grows as an evergreen in a variety of trees, but is common in apple trees, poplars, lindens, and willow. Mistletoe draws water and nutrients from its host. Although it typically does not kill the tree outright, it weakens it to the point of shortening the host’s lifespan, making it vulnerable to other pests and disease.
“There are many different species of mistletoe,” says Enroth. “The species celebrated in ancient texts and used in European celebrations is the European mistletoe, whose scientific name is Viscum album.”
Mistletoe native to North America falls into the genus Phoradendron, and is the mistletoe commonly sold in the United States.
Can you find mistletoe in Illinois?
“That would be highly unlikely at least in Central Illinois,” says Enroth. “Mistletoe is not common to our north-central Illinois climate, but can be found in Hardiness Zone 6 and becomes more prevalent further south.”
Enroth adds, “You may have success finding mistletoe in Southern Illinois. With the warming climate, we have seen southern plant species begin to creep northward.”
Most commercially harvested mistletoe grows in Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico. Mistletoe is toxic and ingesting berries in large amounts can be lethal, so keep it out of reach of children and pets, or hang artificial mistletoe.
The name mistletoe translates directly to English as “dung-on-a-twig,” as ancient tribes thought the plant germinated sporadically from bird droppings. Since “dung-on-a-twig” does not lend itself to the plant’s romantic legend, let’s stick with calling it mistletoe and be careful where you stand this holiday season.