8 Decidedly Unromantic Facts About Mistletoe

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1. Mistletoe, not unlike some you may have smooched beneath it, is a parasite. The plant sucks water and minerals through a sinister-sounding bump called a haustorium that forms on the host tree. It might make you feel better to know that, technically, mistletoe is only partially parasitic: The plant is capable of photosynthesis, unlike true parasites that take all of their nutrients from their hosts. So while mistletoe doesn’t pay rent, it does occasionally do the laundry or whip up a nice soufflé.

2. Candle companies love to peddle holiday scents labeled “Mistletoe” –- you can even buy mistletoe-scented air fresheners for your car—but the plant, says mistletoe expert Jonathan Briggs, has no scent at all. Briggs, who hails from Gloucestershire, England, debunks all manner of mistletoe misinformation in A Little Book About Mistletoe and on his wonderful mistletoe blog.

3. Throughout the ages, mistletoe has been used to treat a battery of ailments, from leprosy, worms and labor pains to high blood pressure. In Europe, injections of mistletoe extract are often prescribed as a complementary treatment for cancer patients.

4. A time-honored southern tradition for fetching mistletoe out of a tall tree is to blast it down with a shotgun. Let’s hope no one’s kissing under it at the time.

5. In medieval times, mistletoe wasn’t just a Christmas decoration, but one perhaps better suited to Halloween: Hung over doors to homes and stables, it was thought to prevent witches and ghosts from entering.

6. According to some accounts, the name mistletoe means “dung branch,” a nod to the seeds’ ability to stick to tree branches when pooped out by birds. The viscous middle layer of the fruit is so sticky that the seeds get glued where they land post-digestion, which starts a new mistletoe plant. Mistletoe goo is so sticky that trappers used to smear it on tree branches to catch birds, which would land and then be unable to fly away.

7. The Roman historian Pliny the Elder told how druids revered mistletoe, recounting a ceremony where they gathered it with a golden sickle, then sacrificed two white bulls. The ceremony still takes place each year, minus the bull-slaying, at the Tenbury Mistletoe Festival in England.

8. In Norse mythology, mistletoe is a god-killer. Balder, the son of Odin and Frigg, was felled by an arrow made of mistletoe, the only material that could hurt him. Oddly, this may have been the origin of the kissing tradition, as some retellings say that Frigg revived Balder and was so happy, she commanded anyone who stood under the plant to kiss as a reminder of how love conquered death.

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December 21, 2010 - 3:39am
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