Seasonal festivities are right around the corner, and what better way to spruce up your home than by adorning it with the coveted leaves of romantic mistletoe? Not so fast. Though it inspires smooches, the stalks of this evergreen are more malicious than they seem. Mistletoe plants are parasites, sapping their host plants (typically trees, and most commonly apple trees) of nutrients and water. Mistletoe takes hold of its parent when birds eat the fruit of the berries and leave droppings on the branches of trees, adhering the mistletoe to its new host. Look up the next time you're out for a hike. The festive mistletoe we are accustomed to seeing during the holidays, Viscum album, is native to Europe, but another variety, Phoradendron leucarpum can be found in eastern North America.
Mistletoe makes appearances in Ancient Greek, Celtic, and Norse tradition. Its most famous superstition, kissing under the mistletoe, was a product of Victorian-era England. This form of trickery was used by the working class to coerce women into locking lips, or else be plagued by bad luck. Some renditions of the practice stipulate that the kiss must last as long as it takes for all of the berries to be picked off the plant. While much of the mistletoe folklore is similarly salacious, the plant has also been historically valued by druids for medicinal uses and is a vital food source for animals.
Much like its associated folklore, harvesting mistletoe is risky business. Since mistletoe grows at the tops of trees, harvesters need to be prepared to climb to the highest points, which can be dangerous. Some people have taken shortcuts and used shotguns to remove the mistletoe from the trees. This is not a safe or recommended method to harvest mistletoe for the harvester, the tree, wildlife, and others passing by.
Mistletoe, like many other plants, has become mythologized and ingrained in our shared ethos. And yet, I've known the tradition of mistletoe for years without really knowing what it was or how it was harvested! It's exciting to think about other parts of the earth with that same cultural resonance are equally overlooked, less understood. After reading up on mistletoe, I've been on the lookout. I haven't been lucky enough to spot any bundles of this particular parasite just yet, but if I had, I'd be without the proper climbing equipment to harvest it. Maybe it's best to leave this plant out of reach, where it can feed the birds.
- Clio Walton, Environmental Educator