Most people know little about mistletoe beyond the delightful Christmas season tradition of “kissing beneath the mistletoe”. Did you know the proper procedure requires that you remove a berry for every kiss, until there are no berries left and no more kissing to be indulged?
In Norse mythology Frigga or Freya, the Goddess of Love, proves the power of a mothers love when her tears raise her son Balder from death caused by an arrow poisoned with red mistletoe berries. Her tears change the berries to a pearly white and rehabilitate the mistletoe reputation. She kisses everyone who walks beneath the mistletoe plant, in gratitude for all they did to protect her son.
Revered by Celtic Druids as a sacred plant, which they called “all-heal”, mistletoe was considered a potent substance that could cure illnesses of many descriptions, serve as an antidote against poisons, ensure fertility, protect against witchcraft, lightning, and death in battle and perform as a divining rod to find buried gold. Apparently, if opposing groups found themselves in the forest beneath mistletoe, they would call a truce for a day (kiss and make up?).
Although mistletoe is known to cause gastro-intestinal distress and can be potentially fatal, it’s properties have been investigated for use in cancer research to stimulate the immune system, kill cancer cells, reduce tumours, increase survival time, decrease pain and improve quality of life.
Mistletoe, from the German, mistel for dung and the old Anglo-Saxon tan for twig or “dung on a twig” refers to the perception that birds would leave behind voided mistletoe seeds on host tree branches, ensuring successful germination. However, that view has been proven false as mistletoe germination actually decreases with passage through a digestive tract. In fact mistletoe berries have evolved a much more remarkable dispersal tactic as they eject their single sticky seed at speeds of up to 60 mph!
In an undisturbed natural environment, the hemi-parasitic (utilizes the tree for food but also able to photosynthesize) mistletoe is not the destructive pest so disparaged by lumber companies but an important component of woodland ecology as it contributes to diversity in the forest. Mistletoe causes the host tree to develop dense clusters of branches, often referred to as the evocative witches’ brooms, which provide well protected roosting and nesting sites and effective cover from predators. Many familiar and some not so common birds such as Cooper’s hawks and spotted owls use witches’ brooms to raise their young, and the phainopepla, the silky flycatcher of the American South-West, relies on mistletoe growing on acacia and mesquite trees for much of its winter food. Several butterflies, such as the endangered (in British Columbia) Johnson’s hairstreak, lay their eggs on dwarf mistletoe, which the caterpillars then consume as food. Many birds, insects and mammals, like the Abert’s or tassel-eared squirrel, either drink the nectar of the mistletoe flowers or consume the berries or plants as an important part of their diets. Even the slow death of the host trees provides home and sustenance to many wild species such as cavity dwelling birds like woodpeckers and nuthatches.
From its place as a natural component of the forest ecology, to sacred plant, to medicinal cure-all, reviled as lumber pest or fondly associated with holiday fun and romance (but watch out for those fertility powers!), mistletoe has long been a part of human culture. Looking out my living room window at a well-loved view of oaks, arbutus and firs, I now realize that a dense cluster of branches high up in the canopy, looking like a well pruned topiary, is actually my own witches’ broom. Now, the next time my husband and I have a disagreement, I’ll maneuver him under the mistletoe and we can call a truce for the day!