13 Mistletoe Facts

When you hear mistletoe, do you think of kissing at Christmas? How would you feel about kissing under a parasite? Yep, that sprig of mistletoe crucial to the romantic Christmas tradition isn't really a plant at all, but a parasite.

  1. Mistletoe stays green all winter because it sucks minerals and water from its host, an unsuspecting tree. Not very romantic.
  2. Kissing under the mistletoe probably originated around the 1500s in Europe. One custom was one kiss per berry, and when the berries were plucked, no more kisses. 
  3. Some species of mistletoe are poisonous. (That's decidedly unromantic.)
  4. But mistletoe isn't all bad. Some doctors prescribe mistletoe to cancer patients to help ease side effects from chemotherapy. 
  5. The Druids believed mistletoe was sacred, a religious symbol that was both medicinal and magical, and was removed from an oak tree using a golden knife or sickle (or so says Pliny the Elder). Mistletoe could even provide protection from witches and ghosts.
  6. There are over a thousand varieties of mistletoe. And that plastic mistletoe you see in the store? That's the American mistletoe, not the European mistletoe, which is, perhaps, more erotic in its shape.
  7. The Anglo-Saxons noticed that mistletoe often grew where birds left their droppings, so mistletoe roughly translates to "dung on a twig." Maybe try not to think about that next time you kiss someone under the mistletoe.
  8. The ripe white berries of dwarf mistletoe, native to western U.S., explode to scatter their seeds as far away as 50 feet. Whoa, something to prove there, mistletoe?
  9. White berries are toxic, but not poisonous, to humans. But keep your pets away from mistletoe, it's poisonous to them.
  10. Mistletoe plants can provide nesting grounds for birds and mammals (although that's mostly after the trees have died, sadly). Mourning doves, spotted owls, Cooper's hawk and squirrels have nested in mistletoe plants.
  11. Those mistletoe plants that make up great nesting sites are often massive, weighing up to 50 pounds. They're called "witches' brooms." 
  12. You know those candles and soaps that smell like mistletoe? Sorry to disappoint, but mistletoe doesn't smell like much of anything. Bummer.
  13. Ever heard of a guy named Balder? He was the son of Norse god Odin, and his mother, Frigg, the goddess of fertility and motherhood, who worried that Balder could get hurt by...anything. So Frigg took an oath from all things, from fire to water, trees and sickness, to stay away from her son. Trickster Loki discovered that Frigg overlooked mistletoe, and Balder was thusly struck down by (some kind of) weapon made out of mistletoe. In some versions, Balder is brought back to life, and maybe that's why mistletoe has berries, from Frigg's tears, and she decided that mistletoe shouldn't be punished and should be seen as a symbol of peace.