Botanical History of Mistletoe

History, Seasonal, Traditions
on November 28, 2012

If wooing that special someone under the mistletoe for a holiday smooch isn't working, try discussing the botanical history of mistletoe and see if that works.

Botanical basics. According to the American Cancer Society, mistletoe is a semi-parasitic plant that grows on several trees in Europe and Western Asia. It's semiparasitic because it carries out photosynthesis on its own but relies on host trees such as pine, oak, birch and apple to obtain water and nutrients. It is used as a holiday decoration and as an herbal remedy to treat cancer symptoms and other diseases. It goes by other names, including bird lime, all heal, devil's fuge, golden bough, mistel and Iscador.

The Druids. The earliest recorded use of mistletoe begins with the Druids, who dressed in white robes to collect the plant when discovered. The cutting of the mistletoe was accompanied by an intricate ceremony at a particular age of the moon, and only after a prominent Druid announced he had received a vision of the herb's presence.

Botanical varieties. The two primary strains of mistletoe used during the Christmas season are the European mistletoe, Viscus album, and Christmas mistletoe, Phoradendron tomentosum. There are, however, more than 1,300 species of the plant. Two species of mistletoe are common to the United States, including the Dwarf mistletoe, which has led to the death of many trees in North America. Mistletoe is found throughout Europe and tropical and temperate climates.

How mistletoe is grown. Mistletoe cannot grow in the ground. Mistletoe is "planted" by birds spreading the berries and rubbing the berry on the smooth underside of branches. Mistletoe berries can also be inserted in clefts of trees by humans in order to grow the plant. Because it relies on trees for nutrients and water, it is regarded as a weed in some locales. The name mistletoe, in fact, is derived from two Anglo-Saxon words meaning "dung" and "twig," or literally, "twig dung." Mistletoe has been used as a medicine for centuries in Europe to treat epilepsy, infertility, hypertension and arthritis.

Modern mistletoe. Although mistletoe is most well known for its ability to bring together romantic couples during the holidays, it has also been promoted and used to treat symptoms of cancer as well as to treat hypertension, epilepsy and spasms.