Back to Nature (Published on - Dec. 13, 2006)
Symbol of love – American mistletoe
Ah, the lore of mistletoe.

Where did the tradition of “kissing under the mistletoe” begin? Norse legend held that the herb was given to the Goddess of Love, as a symbol of love. The popular tradition of hanging the herb high in doorways came from the tradition that mistletoe was a protective herb.

Mothers placed mistletoe in cradles to prevent children from being carried away by the fairies. As well, it was believed that all who passed under this plant deserved a kiss. It was also thought to protect against lightning. Hunters used to carry or wear a piece of mistletoe for good luck. In Celtic times, branches of mistletoe were hung to welcome in the New Year. During the Middle Ages, it was generally believed that when mistletoe was a tree, it had been used to make Christ’s cross: Herbe de la Croix. From that point in history, the Christian belief was passed down that mistletoe was banished from the earth to become a parasite.

Mistletoe is an evergreen semi-parasitic plant that grows on the trunks and branches of trees most commonly the poplar and the apple. There are actually two herbs that are referred to as mistletoe: European mistletoe (Viscum album) and

American mistletoe (Phoradendron serotinum), the state flower of Oklahoma. American mistletoe bears small yellow flowers in early spring, developing into sticky, white berries. The branching woody stem is swollen at the nodes and bears opposite, leathery, yellowish-green; obviated to elliptic leaves that are hairy when young but glabrous at maturity.

Herbalists have used European mistletoe since medieval times to treat epilepsy, cholera, convulsions, hysteria, delirium, heart problems and nervous debility. Native American healers have long used American mistletoe to stimulate contractions at childbirth and also used it as an oral contraceptive. An extract of the plant is known to increase uterine contractions and raise blood pressure when injected into the blood.

American mistletoe is the species most commonly sold as a floral decoration. Care must be used when decorating with “real” mistletoe.

The leaves and stems are toxic and the berries may be poisonous if eaten in large quantities. It is these berries that are responsible for the few reported fatal cases including children’s deaths which have been attributed to eating them. Mistletoe may also cause dermatitis. Symptoms of poisoning are usually those of severe gastroenteritis.

Every winter my mother would take me and my brother for a walk into the wilds of the Tennessee backwoods to collect mistletoe for her Christmas season decorating. Sometimes my father was instructed to “shoot it” out of the tree tops.

Down it would fall to the ground where my brother and I would gently gather it in an old sheet so it would not loose its berries. I have since seen it growing here and there in the tops of trees in Florida, but I don’t recommend my father’s method of gathering it.

Mistletoe can be bought at many stores these days and the berries have been replaced with plastic ones. I don’t usually favor imitation anything, but in this case it seems quite appropriate and sensible. And when someone offers to give you a kiss under the mistletoe, you can acquaint with them with the Norse legend of how mistletoe, our symbol of love, was given to us such a long time ago by the Goddess of Love.

Karen can be reached at

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