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The Tradition of Mistletoe

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Alexbrn [Public domain]

Mistletoe has had a variety of meanings and uses throughout many different times and cultures, including the well-known holiday tradition of kissing under the mistletoe. This week, one of Selby Gardens’ botanists found mistletoe growing in a laurel oak tree on the grounds. Therefore, we thought this was the perfect opportunity to share other details on this illustrious holiday plant!blank

Unlike the epiphytic plants we showcase here at Selby Gardens, mistletoe is actually a parasite. Epiphytes are plants that live on another plant or tree, but do not draw nutrients from it. Parasitic plants, on the other hand, actually take nutrients from their host as they grow on it, sometimes causing the death of the host plant.

The Anglo-Saxon name “mistletoe” originally referred to the species Viscum album, or common mistletoe, which can be found from the British Isles right across much of Eurasia. The term “mistletoe” was eventually applied by plant taxonomists to some 1,300 other plant species with similar parasitic habits around the world, mainly in the plant families Santalaceae (to which Viscum belongs), as well as the Loranthaceae and Misodendraceae.  The U.S. mainland and Canada are home to 30 species of mistletoe; and in Florida we can find two species, including the widespread Phoradendron leucarpum (eastern mistletoe), which can be found throughout much of the state and the eastern U.S., as well as the critically endangered Phoradendron rubrum (mahogany mistletoe), which is only found in Miami and the Florida Keys (and nearby Bahamas and Cuba). Both species are closely related to the common mistletoe of European folklore, and they share the same family (Santalaceae).

Mistletoe is commonly found in oak trees in Florida and is easiest to see during the winter months.  As an evergreen plant, mistletoe is vibrant year-round, but when tree leaves fall in winter, you can easily see the ball-shaped masses on the bare branches. The plant spreads when birds eat the viscous white berries, and then spread the seeds onto other branches and trees in their droppings.

Mistletoe was initially used as an herbal remedy by the Greeks and Romans, but the romantic tradition of the kissing under the plant is linked to folklore from Norse mythology.

blankAs the story goes, when the god Odin’s son Baldur was prophesied to die, his mother Frigg, the goddess of love, went to all the animals and plants of the natural world to secure an oath that they would not harm Baldur. But Frigg neglected to consult with the unassuming mistletoe, so the scheming god Loki made an arrow from the plant and saw that it was used to kill the otherwise invincible Baldur (…) Fortunately, the gods were able to resurrect Baldur from the dead, and a delighted Frigg then declared mistletoe a symbol of love and vowed to plant a kiss on all those who passed beneath it (Andrews 2013).

This intriguing plant has a vibrant history and has played a role within many stories and legends. In addition, it has become a staple during the holiday season. Keep on the lookout for this famous plant on your next trip to the Gardens, and in your own trees during the winter months.

Resources

Andrews, Evan. “Why Do We Kiss under the Mistletoe?” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 24 Dec. 2013, https://www.history.com/news/why-do-we-kiss-under-the-mistletoe.

Sweetser, Robin. “Why Do We Kiss Under the Mistletoe?” Old Farmer’s Almanac, 16 Dec. 2019, https://www.almanac.com/news/gardening/gardening-advice/why-do-we-kiss-under-mistletoe.

Alexbrn [Public domain], <a href=”https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mistletoe_Berries_Uk.jpg”>via Wikimedia Commons</a>

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