Archive for the ‘Evergreen’ Category

Mistletoe

Monday, April 13th, 2009

Viscum album (and its North American counterpart Phoradendron spp.) is the plant commonly referred to as mistletoe. Sprigs of real and plastic mistletoe are familiar sights at Christmas parties and in holiday wreaths. In fact, I think it would be a challenge to find someone unfamiliar with some form of the mistletoe kissing custom. As it stands, the polite tradition is for the man to take a berry off the plant for every woman he kisses beneath it. No more berries, no more kisses under that plant. Of course, simplifying this to “you have to kiss under the mistletoe!” is common and fairly ubiquitous. What do you do when faced with mistletoe?

Mistletoe is a hemi-parasitic plant that grows in the branches (epiphytic) of other woody plants–especially oak trees here in the Southeast. While it is capable of photosynthesis, mistletoe derives water and nutrients from its host plant. The types of mistletoe that are seen around the Triangle are probably Phoradendron leucarpum, which is a type of braod-leaved mistletoe. The dark green leaves are thick and leathery and the branches grow into dense shrubby clusters. (Once you start looking for it, mistletoe is everywhere. There are good-sized clusters of it in the oaks in front of D.H. Hill Library at NCSU if you’re in the neighborhood.)

mistletoe

There are tons of legends surrounding mistletoe. In the druidic culture, mistletoe–with its white berries–was a masculine counterpart to the red-berried holly. Both of these winter plants were important to celebrations of the winter solstice. According to [Pagan Christmas], the druids were believed to wear white and red robes during these winter rituals–though these are also the colors of the [fly agaric mushroom]. Still, a connection to semen is important in mistletoe’s use in fertility rituals and charms. Again in Pagan Christmas, the authors cite a region of Germany in which sprigs of mistletoe were bound to fruit trees in the winter for a good harvest. Mistletoe in the bedroom helped to conceive a child. Mistletoe in a bride’s bouquet was good luck for the marriage (it is almost wedding season!). The evolution of traditions like these to the modern custom of demanding a kiss when standing beneath the mistletoe is fairly clear.

Mistletoe was also dedicated by the Celts and some Germanic peoples to the various thunder gods, leading to sprigs of mistletoe on roofs or above doorways as protection against thunder or lightening.

The white berries of mistletoe were also thought to represent the tears of the goddess Frigga at the death of her son Balder. The long and short of it is that Balder could not be by anything, including the plants rooted in the earth. Mistletoe has no roots in the earth and thus was poisonous to Balder. The trickster god, Loki, had Balder shot with an arrow poisoned by mistletoe, resulting in his death. In some versions of the myth (such as the one featured on [How Stuff Works]), mistletoe is also the key to Balder’s resurrection.

Mistletoe for a time was recast as “devil’s broom” during the Christianization of many pagan areas, but it was soon incorporated into Christian myth. One legend states that the cross used to crucify Jesus was made of mistletoe; as a punishment to the plant, God took away its roots, forcing it to live on top of other plants.

Pliny the Elder describes a presumed druidic ritual of mistletoe in his [Natural History] (translated by Bostock and Riley):

Creepy sprouts of mistletoe on a street elm

Creepy sprouts of mistletoe on a street tree on Gorman Street

Upon this occasion we must not omit to mention the admiration that is lavished upon this plant by the Gauls. In fact, it is the notion with them that everything that grows on it has been sent immediately from heaven, and that the mistletoe upon it is a proof that the tree has been selected by God himself as an object of his especial favour.

The mistletoe is gathered with rites replete with religious awe. This is done more particularly on the fifth day of the moon, the day which is the beginning of their months and years, as also of their ages, which, with them, are but thirty years. Having made all due preparation for the sacrifice and a banquet beneath the trees, they bring thither two white bulls, the horns of which are bound then for the first time. Clad in a white robe the priest ascends the tree, and cuts the mistletoe with a golden sickle, which is received by others in a white cloak. They then immolate the victims, offering up their prayers that God will render this gift of his propitious to those to whom he has so granted it. It is the belief with them that the mistletoe, taken in drink, will impart fecundity to all animals that are barren, and that it is an antidote for all poisons. Such are the religious feelings which we find entertained towards trifling objects among nearly all nations.

So on the fifth night after the winter solstice, druids cut down mistletoe with a golden scythe, sacrificed some bulls, and then distributed the sprigs and drank mistletoe teas and medicines. Mistletoe isn’t as highly toxic as rumor would have it, but eating it can make you nauseous–this isn’t one I recommend for home ingestion.