Steal a Kiss Under the Dung Twig: Mistletoe

Come kiss me under the life-sucking parasite

doesn’t exactly have a romantic ring to it, but every time
someone issues an invitation to meet under the mistletoe, that’s
exactly what that person is saying.
“Come kiss me under the life-sucking parasite” doesn’t exactly have a romantic ring to it, but every time someone issues an invitation to meet under the mistletoe, that’s exactly what that person is saying.

Every year, optimistic lovers hang mistletoe around their homes in hopes it will bring them a kiss from someone special, despite the plant’s distinctly unattractive qualities.

“Mistletoe is a fungus – a parasite, really – that attaches itself by its roots to trees and then sucks water and nutrients out of the host tree,” said Suna, a volunteer for the Santa Clara County Master Gardeners hotline. “The tree starts to lose its vigor and eventually dies.”

The plant spreads like a plague, easily transferring its seeds to healthy trees through birds and wind. To get rid of the parasite, tree owners should prune the part of the tree where the mistletoe is growing. People should also try pulling the mistletoe off the tree and buying varieties of tree that are resistant to parasites, Suna said.

Normally, merry-makers avoid using clumps of poison as party decorations, but mistletoe is one notable exception. Every part of the plant – leaves and berries – are extremely toxic.

If eaten, mistletoe can cause vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain and other reactions, according to the California Poison Control System. Pets and children often eat mistletoe by accident when bits of it fall from its hanging place to the floor. Poison Control recommends placing the plant in a plastic sandwich bag or netting before using it for decoration.

Even the word “mistletoe” has decidedly unromantic origins. It comes from the second-century Anglo-Saxon word “mistletan,” according to the Royal Botanic Kew Gardens in London. “Mistel” means dung, and “tan” means twig, which stems from the ancient belief that the plant came from bird droppings.

Mistletoe and Kisses: How the Marriage Began

Though no one knows for sure how kisses and romance first came to be associated with a plant as unpleasant as mistletoe, its history is steeped in folklore and traditions of love, according to the anthropology department at Texas A&M University. For example:

– According to Scandinavian tales, mistletoe was once considered a plant of peace. Enemies who found themselves under a tree that had mistletoe in it called a truce for the day. The enemies would sometimes kiss and make up under the plant.

– Ancient Celts hung mistletoe over their children’s cradles to protect them from being stolen by fairies and replaced with changelings, which is the offspring of a fairy, troll, elf or other legendary creature according to European folklore.

– Druids used mistletoe as an aphrodisiac.

– Ancient Greeks thought mistletoe aided in fertility.

– In some Eastern European countries, if a couple in love kissed under the mistletoe, it was considered a promise to marry. In many places, it is still a prediction of a long and happy marriage.

– Other European countries have a tradition of taking one berry off the mistletoe for each kiss stolen beneath it. Once the berries are gone, there should be no other kisses exchanged under that specific plant.

– Some cultures say if an unmarried woman is not kissed under the mistletoe, she will remain single for the rest of the year.