Mistletoe hangs from doorways in many homes throughout the holiday season. Traditionally, if you are caught under the hanging mistletoe with another, you must kiss that person. This tradition has Greek and European origins. Before the holiday season, consider these five fun facts about this special plant.
State flower. Mistletoe grows wild in Oklahoma and is the state flower. Typically, mistletoe purchased during the holiday season is either Phoradendron serotinum (North American mistletoe) or Viscum album (European mistletoe.) It’s a semi-parasitic plant, “meaning it invades a living branch of a host tree or bush with a shallow root and absorbs food, minerals and water, and also produces food through photosynthesis in its evergreen leaves,” states Smithsonian Science. Part of the plant order Santalales, it flowers and contains berries.
Origin of the name. Two Anglo-Saxon words may be the origins of the word mistletoe. “Mistel,” or mist, means dung. “Tan” means twig. When the two are combined, it is dung twig or dung on a twig. Dung on a twig possibly refers to the fact that birds eat mistletoe berries and then excrete them in their droppings. This process helps disperse the seeds for new mistletoe growth.
Mistletoe Viking myth. Viking lore states Frigga, goddess of love, used it to raise her son Balder from the dead. When Balder’s enemy Loki killed him with a dart coated with poison from mistletoe, Frigga called on the other godly elementals to bring Balder back from the dead. They failed. As Frigga cried, the legend states her tears turned the mistletoe berries from red to white, resurrecting Balder.
Kissing under the mistletoe origins. Multiple stories exist suggesting the origins of why people kiss under the mistletoe. The ancient Greeks kissed under the mistletoe during their Saturnalia festival, as the plant was associated with fertility. Warring Scandinavians are believed to have met and reconciled under the mistletoe, also known as the plant of peace. By the 18th century, the English included mistletoe as part of their holiday celebrations. Young women when caught under mistletoe were not supposed to refuse the kiss of an enamored young man.
Medicinal plant. According to the National Cancer Institute, “Mistletoe extract has been shown to kill cancer cells in the laboratory and to affect the immune system.” Mistletoe for medicinal purposes is injected. However, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved it as a treatment for cancer or other conditions.