Mistletoe’s rich history

The holiday season is filled with traditions and customs involving plants, notes University of Missouri Extension horticulturist David Trinklein.

Mistletoe has a particularly rich history in European folklore, said Trinklein. In 18th-century England, people fashioned mistletoe into balls adorned with ornaments, ribbons and evergreens. Legend has it that kissing under a mistletoe ball would lead to lasting friendship or serious romance. If a girl remained unkissed under mistletoe, she could not expect to marry in the next year.

In the Middle Ages, people hung branches of mistletoe from the ceilings of their homes to ward off evil spirits and witches. Druids used mistletoe from oak trees in pagan rituals such as animal sacrifices. They considered mistletoe to be sacred and a symbol of peace and harmony. Folklore says enemies would meet under a tree bearing mistletoe, lay down weapons, exchange greetings and observe a truce until the next day.

Scandinavians also used mistletoe to make a truce between warring parties and quarrelsome spouses. This practice may be linked to myths of the Norse god, Balder. His mother, Frigga, had a dream in which he was killed. Fearing the dream was prophetic, Frigga commanded all objects to vow never to harm Balder. The trickster god Loki learned she had overlooked one item: mistletoe. Loki duped Balder’s blind brother, Hod, into fatally shooting Balder with an arrow tipped with mistletoe. The tears Frigga shed turned into the pearly white berries of the mistletoe. Frigga decreed that everyone who stands under the mistletoe should offer a kiss as a token of love.

The mistletoe commonly used in U.S. holiday decoration is native to North America and grows as a parasite on trees such as apple, poplar, linden and, rarely, oak. American mistletoe is commercially harvested in New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma, where it is the state flower.

Both American and European mistletoe are poisonous because of toxic proteins found in all parts of the plant, including its berries. “Many retail outlets hesitate to sell it,” Trinklein said. “What you buy as mistletoe is probably plastic or synthetic.”

If using real mistletoe for holiday decoration, keep it out of the reach of children and pets. Do not hang mistletoe where children can pick up fallen berries.