By Claire Woodward, Ph.D
FOC Gift Shop Director
At this time of year mistletoe is widely available in little bunches tied with red ribbon, making appearances at office parties and being held high by expectant Aunts that smell of mothballs but there is so much more to them than that.
To begin with, all mistletoes are parasites of other plants; more specifically they are hemi-parasitic which means they obtain some of the resources they need such as water and nutrients from their tree host while providing sugars for itself by photosynthesizing using its evergreen leaves. Mistletoes are typically distributed by birds. Birds eat the fruits, drupes, and depending on the bird species either regurgitates the seeds, excrete them or the seeds stick to the birds’ bill which are then wiped off on a branch. The seeds are coated in a sticky substance called viscin. Once the seed is on its host the viscin hardens and secures the seed to the branch. The seed germinates sending a specialized root called a haustorium through the bark into the living tissues of the tree. The haustorium does not puncture the cells, but it grows in between the cells slowly removing water and nutrients from all the cells it touches. In this way the cells are not damaged and the mistletoe can survive without killing its host although a large infestation can weaken the tree.
The Mistletoe used for holiday decorations in North America are Viscum album, the European Mistletoe and Phoradendron serotinum, the Eastern Mistletoe but there are 1,300 species of mistletoe worldwide. Australia has 85 species of mistletoe which exploit almost all of the native trees and shrubs. Not all the species live on tree hosts. Tristerix aphyllus parasitizes the cacti Echinopsis chilensis and Eulychria acida, both found in Chile. This mistletoe lives almost entirely inside the tissue of the cacti with only the bright red flowers emerging from the cacti to be pollinated by the Green Backed Firecrown Hummingbird (Sephanoides sephanoides). In Australia, the Succulent Mistletoe (Amyema miraculosum) parasitizes the Box mistletoe (Amyema miquelii) which itself parasitizes several species of Eucalyptus and Acacia.
Mistletoe has many uses in different cultures. Viscum is so effective as an adhesive that hunters in South Africa have extracted it from the drupes and coat branches with ‘bird lime’ to trap small mammals and birds. The European Mistletoe has been used in the past to treat everything from nervous disorders to heart and urinary disorders. Nicholas Culpeper in 1652 suggested it should be used to ‘draweth forth thick as well as thin Humours from the remote parts of the body’ and believed it was able to ‘mollify the hardness of the spleen and helpeth old ulcers and sores’. It is still used today by herbalists to treat cancer, degenerative inflammation, high blood pressure, poor circulation and as a sedative. However it contains Phoratoxin, which when ingested causes blurred vision, diarrhea, vomiting and blood pressure changes so please do not consider using mistletoe to self medicate.
Many myths and legends include mistletoe. Aboriginal tribes in Australia believe spirit babies are sent into the wilds to find a mother. They hide in trees until a women walks past but if they do not find a mother they are turned into mistletoes. The ancient druids believed that mistletoe was a sacred plant especially if it was growing in an oak tree, a rare occurance for the European Mistletoe. On the sixth night after the winter solstice the chief druid would cut a single mistletoe from the oak using a golden knife. The mistletoe would fall onto a cloth, placed under the tree to prevent it from touching the ground. An attendant would then take pieces to each house in the village where it would be hung above the door to protect the family from evils.
And finally, why do people kiss under sprigs of mistletoe?
There are many theories on how this tradition began. According to Old Norse mythology Baldr the god of peace and his mother the goddess Frigg, dream of his death. Frigg pleaded with all things not to harm her son. All did except for Mistletoe. When Loki, the god of mischief, discovered this weakness he made an arrow of mistletoe. Loki tricked Baldr’s brother, the blind god Höðr, into firing the arrow at Baldr, killing him. Frigg persuaded the other gods to resurrect Baldr and mistletoe was decreed to only ever perform acts of happiness and that everyone who passes under a bough of mistletoe should receive a kiss. The tradition of kissing under this parasite carries on and has become the perfect gesture to represent the sentiments of the holiday season.