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What’s A Tree Thief … and Why All the Kisses?

mistletoe (800x533)Recently, I drove north on Interstate 81 from Lexington toward Staunton, spotting a thick green clump high in a stand of oaks along the roadway. Mistletoe. Unmistakable. The trees had shed their colorful leaves earlier in the fall so the eye-catching clump stood out with a kind of doggedness in its evergreen canopy tufts.

The species of mistletoe common in the Potomac drainage and elsewhere in Virginia is Phoradendron flavescens, a yellowish-green woody parasite on the trunks and branches of oaks, maples, locusts, walnuts, and other deciduous trees. Its scientific name literally translates, “yellowish tree thief.” In effect, mistletoe steals nutriment from its host tree as it taps into the host’s vascular structures, much like a tick or leech purloins blood from humans.

Mistletoes have long fascinated us. Most folks don’t know that they are plant parasites numbering about 1,400 species growing in a broad band of habitats around the world, especially in the tropics.

Despite their parasitic nature, however, mistletoes produce ample nectar and numerous fruits, providing an important food source for birds, mammals, and even invertebrates.

The etymology of the word, mistletoe, reflects the plants’ unseen natural history. “Mistel” is an Anglo-Saxon word for “dung,” and “tan,” the word for “twig.” Thus, the word may be translated literally as “dung-on-a-twig,” referring to a mistletoe’s seeming sudden appearance after its seeds are deposited in bird droppings on tree branches. So much for spontaneous generation!

Lacking roots, remaining green year-round, and bearing fruit during cold winters, mistletoes were revered by ancient Druids who used the plants during their sacrificial rituals. The ultimate goal for Virgil’s Aeneus was finding the “golden bough,” a euphemism for mistletoes as they age and die. The burning bush in the Book of Exodus may have been a mistletoe species common on acacias in the Middle East, the fiery red and yellow flowers appearing during the summer when the shrubby parasite sheds its leaves. Medieval herbalists also recognized their roles as medicinal herbs. Even modern pharmaceutical companies are studying the plants’ compounds for cancer curatives.

However, let me offer a warning here: do not eat any part of these plants! Depending on concentration, their toxic leaves and berries can cause gastrointestinal distress and cardiovascular failure.

Other traditions are also wrapped up intimately with mistletoes.

Early Nordic cultures imbued the plants with magical qualities when their god Baldur was killed by another god with an arrow made from mistletoe wood. Kissing under a sprig of mistletoe then became symbolic of remembrance and resuscitation, a celebration of Baldur’s eventual resurrection.

Next we come to the ancient Romans. Of course, the Romans: are they ever associated with debauchery? Annually, they celebrated a week-long festival of lawlessness, called the Saturnalia, from 17 to 25 December. In addition to human sacrifice during the festival, ancient Roman communities embraced widespread intoxication, sexual license, and the consumption of vulgar-shaped biscuits. Given that at least some species of mistletoe possess abortifacient qualities, the parasite was long associated by them with uninhibited sexuality.

Finally, we come to Christianity that tried with mixed success to refine or eradicate the practices of Saturnalia, including the assignment of Christ’s birth on 25 December to usurp these bawdy practices. Even poor ole’ priggish Tertullian, a 3rd century church apologist, warned his fellow Christians against such vile Saturnalian practices as using wreaths, trees, and other evergreen clippings as Christmas decorations.

Kissing under a mistletoe then seems a lingering synthesis of a Druidic cult of sacrifice, the Nordic celebration of death and resurrection, and Roman licentiousness during one of its major holidays. What a cross cultural mélange for such a strange little plant!

Similarly, I could demythologize our beloved Christmas trees, wreaths, yule logs, and holly-and-ivy decorations. They all have dark sides for such a season of light! But I think the core message for all these evergreens, starting with mistletoe, is a hopeful one: we bring the outdoors indoors to remind us during the Winter Solstice that rebirth, renewal, and the re-greening of a bleak world are just in front of us.

So, if you catch me standing under your sprig of mistletoe, don’t assume that I’m lingering wistfully to catch a kiss. As a self-proclaimed skeptic who has long demythologized mistletoe, I’m there simply to examine a remarkable botanical species caught up in ancient cross-cultural ties. I’m not there for a kiss. No, really.

H. Bruce Rinker, Ph.D.
Ecologist, Educator, and Explorer
[email protected]

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