European, white-berried mistletoe, Viscum album is the best known variety of mistletoe and the one that popular traditions and folklores are based on. It’s the only variety with the distinctively forked branches, paired symmetrical evergreen leaves and pearlescent white-berries that are associated with midwinter and Christmas.
Mistletoe exists by parasitically attaching onto and then penetrating into the branches of trees or shrubs using a structure called the haustorium, through this they absorb water and nutrients from their host. Technically, mistletoe is a hemiparasite, because it can perform at least a little photosynthesis for at least a little of its life cycle. However, this distinction is largely academic.
Some sub-species of Viscum album have adapted to live on evergreen trees such as firs. However, here in France, it’s the main Viscum album that we see, particularly in winter, when it grows as large spherical plants (often up to a meter in diameter) in the branches of deciduous trees. This parasite prefers trees with softer bark, it traditionally loves old apple trees but can also be found on ash, lime, birch, hawthorn and larch but rarely on oak and strangely not on pear trees.
Mistletoes have to be grown from seed, directly on a host, and cannot be cultivated directly in the earth. It is possible to encourage the growth of a new plant by rubbing the sticky white berries onto the bark of a host tree. Replicating the process usually undertaken by birds.
Birds have developed very specific ways of dealing with the very sticky mistletoe berries that contains the seed. Some seeds pass straight through their digestive systems, the resulting (rather sticky) dropping then adhere to tree bark. Whilst other birds dine on the berries and then wipe the sticky residue (often including the seed) off their beaks and onto tree branches. Mistle thrush and black cap are perhaps the keenest consumers of these mysterious, sticky white-berries.
A few days after contact with tree-bark the seed projects a thread-like root which pierces the bark and firmly roots itself in the host. These roots draw up all the plant’s required sustenance. So effective is this process that mistletoes can contain greater levels of essential elements than their host trees.
Mistletoe’s association with Christmas is a simple coincidence. It’s long been associated with mid-winter and this seasonal-association predates Christianity. Many people still consider it to be a pagan plant, with its history based in ancient winter-solstice customs. So even today it can be banned from some Church decorations.
Over time, many cultures have celebrated mistletoe as a sign of peace, love and fertility. In Norse Mythology, it is said that the blind god Hodur was tricked into murdering Balder (the Beautiful) with an arrow made from Mistletoe. The plant then went on to assume the role of a symbol of peace and friendship to compensate for its involvement in the murder.
The custom of kissing under the mistletoe has been recorded for many centuries. Traditionally a man could kiss any woman standing underneath some mistletoe. Some customs include the plucking of one berry for each kiss and then once all the berries have gone – the kissing had to stop.
Perhaps mistletoe’s association with fertility developed following the annual sightings of the bright, evergreen growths on their deciduous, rather dead-looking hosts. This could let mistletoe give the impression of being a symbol of fertility; a continuing ‘life-force’. Maybe it’s no great surprise that after its association with so many fertility based myths and legends; that the plant was also used to produce many ancient potions, either to enhance fertility or to attract a partner.
Ancient Druids valued, even worshipped, mistletoe. Especially, when it grew on their sacred trees particularly their oaks. Priests would climb trees to gather the plant, cutting it with a special golden sickle and letting it fall towards the ground to be caught in a cloak. This catching was essential as if the mistletoe touched the ground it was believed it would lose some of its mystical powers. The druids would then use their precious crop for their rituals and the preparation of their medicines.
In France mistletoe is called Le Gui and traditionally a sprig was given as a Porte Bonheur (a good luck charm) particularly at New Year. In Brittany, where mistletoe grows profusely, the plant is referred to as Herbe de la Croix. A local legend tells that the biblical-cross was made from mistletoe wood, and so as a penance its status was degraded to that of a parasite.
Historically, mistletoe held a reputation as a cure for ‘falling sickness’ – epilepsy and other nervous/convulsive disorders including St. Vitus’s dance, delirium, hysteria, neuralgia and additionally even urinary disorders and heart disease. Such was its reputation as an aid to epileptics that reportedly, sufferers in Sweden, would carry a knife with a mistletoe-wood handle to ward off attacks!
It is important to note that digesting mistletoe and in particular its berries can cause, rather than prevent, convulsions. Keep all parts of the plant well away from children and dogs!
As with many poisonous plants, handled correctly, it can be a source of very important drugs. An extract from mistletoe has, for many years, been used in drugs to help alleviate the side-effects of cancer treatments. Increasingly there are investigations into how extracts can also boost the body’s own immune system and perhaps even stunt the growth of some tumours. So maybe in the future this ancient plant will find a renewed place in the hearts and minds of people for more than just an excuse for a sneaked kiss!
By A Atkinson