Magic of Mistletoe
The Magic Power of Mistletoe
I can remember it like it was yesterday. I was sixteen and smitten by the beautiful Debbie Tate. At the school Christmas party, she was standing underneath the mistletoe and I had a chance to give her a kiss. That moment of my dreams had arrived. I slowly approached her … but before I tell you what happened, have you ever wondered why mistletoe gives us an opportunity to kiss people?
Well, the reason goes far back to the time of the Druids.
As mistletoe bears its pearly white fruits around the winter solstice and is one of very few plants to do so, to our distant ancestors it became associated with special powers and immortality. The ‘ancient ones’ started believing you could use these winter fruits, that live when all else is dead, to treat infertility in animals.
Then along came the Scandinavian Druids with a more radical vision of mistletoe. They thought that the open pair of leaves with the two fruit in the centre looked like a man and woman engaged in sexual coupling (“I’ll have a glass of what Bjorn the Druid is drinking please barman!”). Too many long lonely northern nights in the dark methinks, but mistletoe was now linked forever with matters of a sexual nature between men and women and was the ‘must have’ ingredient in love potions.
However, it wasn’t until Victorian times that kissing under the mistletoe became the fashionable Christmas thing to do. In polite Victorian society, kissing under the mistletoe was an acceptable way to touch lips with the opposite sex without mutterings about your ‘shameless behaviour’. Since then the popularity of kissing under the mistletoe has grown exponentially. From the modest Victorian ‘brief encounter’, it now gives license for ‘full-on snogging’ with Jones from Accounts at the office Christmas party.
Yet there is no mistletoe tree, so where does bewitching plant come from? Mistletoe is a parasite (hemi-parasite technically), and depends on other trees to grow. It takes water and nutrients out of other trees by inserting the equivalent of a placenta into the host and sucking out everything it needs to grow. (It is called a hemi –parasite because it is capable of some photosynthesis by itself and so doesn’t rely 100% on the host tree.)
Mistletoe is a remarkable piece of evolution, because not only does it not have roots, it can only can spread its seed through the help of birds. In particular, it has a reliance on the Mistle Thrush.
The Mistle Thrush loves mistletoe berries and eats their fill. After dining, the little bird flies off and has to eventually land on another tree. After so many berries the thrush has many a dropping to release and inside this bird excrement are the seeds of the mistletoe. All it needs is for one of these seeds to find a nice little nook, or break in the bark, and another mistletoe plant starts to grow. Incredible as it is these seeds can grow on over 200 different types of trees.
UK mistletoe grows mostly in Gloucestershire and Worcestershire and you only find the Viscum Album variety in this country, which is our native species. In the West of England there is an ideal climate, the right trees and the right birds. Viscum Album simply means ‘Sticky and White’, because the mistletoe seeds inside the husk are covered in a sticky white ‘glue’. This allows the seeds to stick to the trees after they fall out of the bird’s bottom. It is an evolutionary miracle! The glue surrounding the seeds is so sticky that with tropical species of mistletoe, Bushmen can make a paste, smear it over branches and catch birds that land on the paste. Amazing! In the UK we commonly call this sticky white glue, ‘Bird Lime’.
Originally thought of as a pest, mistletoe is now recognised as being of significant ecological importance. A wide array of animals depend on mistletoe for food; eating the leaves, young shoots and berries in times of scarcity. Wherever mistletoe grows many rare birds, animals and vegetation thrive.
It is a wonderfully interesting plant. If you get a chance this year visit the Tenbury Wells Mistletoe Festival. It is the biggest market for selling Christmas mistletoe and is fun and educational for adults and children.
Anyway, Debbie was under the mistletoe and I took my life in my adolescent hands and approached her to give her that kiss, the one I had been practising on the back of my hand. For me it was the moment of my young life, for her it was just another spotty youth wanting to give her a kiss. The story didn’t end happily for me because she left the party with Ian Damn-Him-For-All-Eternity Wright. Not that I'm still bitter.
Yes, mistletoe is many things. It’s for the treatment of infertile animals, you can make love potions from it, its living Scandinavian erotica, it is a hemi–parasite, it let the prudish Victorians kiss each other, Bushmen can catch birds with its glue, it is of ecological importance, it falls out a thrushes bottom, you get to touch your lips with the sixteen year old Debbie Tate and it lets you have a snog with Jones from Accounts.
It does indeed have powerful properties, but for me its greatest spell of all, is that it is an essential part of the Magic of Christmas!!