Over the centuries the mistletoe plant has been a source of fascination, with many claims that it possesses healing and magical qualities. For example, mistletoe was thought to be a remedy for poison. A bundle hanging in a doorway was said to protect against lightening, fire, and witches. Mistletoe is perhaps known best these days as a symbol of love and friendship.
The tradition of kissing under mistletoe is traced back to 16th century England, but it was likely borrowed from Scandinavian traditions that go back many hundreds of years, when it was typically hung in the kitchen to protect from evil spirits and bad luck. When used as Christmas décor in days of old, mistletoe would often be displayed from one Christmas Eve until the next, when it was replaced with a fresh sprig, thus providing its believed protections throughout the year.
While many of us use artificial mistletoe in our decorating, fresh sprigs are often readily available around the holidays at florists and even in the produce section of grocers. Those living in USDA zone 6 to 10 can likely find mistletoe growing nearby. However, it is often too high up in a tree to be safely harvested.
Mistletoe is considered a hemi-parasite in the plant world. That means that while mistletoe does its own photosynthesis, it requires a host plant for everything else. The mistletoe plant grows and attaches to a tree or shrub and it’s able to pull water and nutrients from the host plant.
Once established, mistletoe plants spread mainly as a result of their sticky seeds. The seeds of established plants either fall and stick on branches below, where they will then sprout, or they can also be similarly spread through bird droppings. While it may sound like a destructive and worthless plant that only serves to kill off its host, mistletoe does actually have food value to many animals and pollinating insects. It also provides nesting sites for some birds.
Decorating with mistletoe has become firmly rooted in many family’s holiday traditions. Just remember that according to superstition, it’s bad luck to refuse a kiss offered while standing under the mistletoe. As a result, mistletoe provides a fun way to steal a kiss from a potential love interest or share a romantic moment with someone special.