CLOSE
Getty Images
Getty Images

More Than You Ever Needed to Know About Mistletoe

Getty Images
Getty Images


When you sidle up to your sweetie for a smooch beneath the mistletoe this year, try not to think too much about the provenance of the plant's name. It's hardly the most romantic thing.

The name mistletoe comes from the Old English mistletan (mistel, "mistletoe" or sometimes "basil" + tan, "twig"). Its history before that is unclear, but some etymologists trace the mistel to the German mist or "dung," in which case we're kissing underneath something like the "dung on a twig." This is plausible, given the way the plant is dispersed: Birds eat the plant's berries, but don't digest the seeds. When they drop some little birdy turdies later on, some of the lucky seeds hit a suitable tree branch on the way down to Earth and stick around long enough to grow into something.

Mistletoe is not just one plant, but some 1000-plus loosely related species from all over the world. Many of these are what are called hemi-parasites. The plants have green leaves and perform photosynthesis, but also pilfer some nutrients from a host organism. Once a seed has gone from bird poop to branch and germinated, the mistletoe sends its roots down into the tree's wood to steal some of its water and nutrients. The mistletoe grows on the free food into a thick tangle of stems that Europeans often referred to as "witches’ brooms" and that the Navajo called "baskets on high."

These "baskets" are pretty important to a lot of animals. Birds and bugs feed on the berries and build nests in the stems. Tangles of mistletoe are especially popular as nesting sites for owls, hawks and other raptors. In the winter, when fresh foliage is scarce, elk, deer, moose and even domestic cattle will turn to mistletoe leaves and berries as a high-protein snack. It's not something you'd want to munch on while you wait for the Christmas goose to finish cooking, though—mistletoe is mildly toxic to humans.

This isn't to say we haven't had some use for it over the years. The ancient Druids believed oak trees to be sacred, and accepted any mistletoe that grew on oaks as gifts from the heavens. They would harvest the plant from the trees and decorate their homes with it for the winter solstice. The Druids probably didn't kiss under their mistletoe, though, and no one seems to really know where or how that tradition began. It's been variously attributed to the Greeks, the Norse, the Romans, and the Babylonians.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
music
Everything You Need to Know About Record Store Day
iStock
iStock

The unlikely resurgence of vinyl as an alternative to digital music formats is made up of more than just a small subculture of purists. Today, more than 1400 independent record stores deal in both vintage and current releases. Those store owners and community supporters created Record Store Day in 2007 as a way of celebrating the grassroots movement that’s allowed a once-dying medium to thrive.

To commemorate this year’s Record Store Day on Saturday, April 21, a number of stores (a searchable list can be found here) will be offering promotional items, live music, signings, and more. While events vary widely by store, a number of artists will be issuing exclusive LPs that will be distributed around the country.

For Grateful Dead fans, a live recording of a February 27, 1969 show at Fillmore West in San Francisco will be released and limited to 6700 copies; Arcade Fire’s 2003 EP album will see a vinyl release for the first time, limited to 3000 copies; "Roxanne," the Police single celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, will see a 7-inch single release with the original jacket art.

The day also promises to be a big one for David Bowie fans. A special white vinyl version of 1977’s Bowie Now will be on shelves, along with Welcome to the Blackout (Live London ’78), a previously-unreleased, three-record set. Jimmy Page, Frank Zappa, Neil Young, and dozens of other artists will also be contributing releases.

No store is likely to carry everything you might want, so before making the stop, it might be best to call ahead and then plan on getting there early. If you’re one of the unlucky vinyl supporters without a brick and mortar store nearby, you can check out Discogs.com, which will be selling the special releases online.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
What Is the Meaning Behind "420"?
iStock
iStock

Whether or not you’re a marijuana enthusiast, you’re probably aware that today is an unofficial holiday for those who are. April 20—4/20—is a day when pot smokers around the world come together to, well, smoke pot. Others use the day to push for legalization, holding marches and rallies.

But why the code 420? There are a lot of theories as to why that particular number was chosen, but most of them are wrong. You may have heard that 420 is police code for possession, or maybe it’s the penal code for marijuana use. Both are false. There is a California Senate Bill 420 that refers to the use of medical marijuana, but the bill was named for the code, not the other way around.

As far as anyone can tell, the phrase started with a bunch of high school students. Back in 1971, a group of kids at San Rafael High School in San Rafael, California, got in the habit of meeting at 4:20 to smoke after school. When they’d see each other in the hallways during the day, their shorthand was “420 Louis,” meaning, “Let’s meet at the Louis Pasteur statue at 4:20 to smoke.”

Somehow, the phrase caught on—and when the Grateful Dead eventually picked it up, "420" spread through the greater community like wildfire. What began as a silly code passed between classes is now a worldwide event for smokers and legalization activists everywhere—not a bad accomplishment for a bunch of high school stoners.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios