Mistletoe: a holiday bundle of contradictions

December 20, 2008|By SUSAN REIMER

Mistletoe is a striking collection of contradictions for a plant that has been so emblematic of Christmas for so many centuries.

It is a symbol of new love because of the kiss-ing tradition, and yet the berries of the European mistletoe are toxic.

The dwarf mistletoe is so rare that it is considered endangered in Maryland. But it is a parasitic plant, slowly draining the moisture and nutrients from its host trees and rendering them weak.

Even mistletoe's sacred mythology is conflicting.

Because it is so often found high in trees, mistletoe was considered closer to heaven than to earth. The fact that it flowers when all else has died reinforces the Christian promise of rebirth.

But it is also said to be the tree from which Christ's cross was made, and it was condemned to be nothing more than a leeching bundle of twigs as its eternal punishment.

And it has lost its standing among holiday greenery, too. Charlie Andrzejewski, sales director for Calvert Wholesale Florists in Baltimore, used to import it from Texas (it is most often found in the South) by the bundle.

"The last three or four years, nothing," he said, noting a lack of demand. He now imports little quarter-ounce gift packs that garden centers and florists sell for $4 or $5.

Mistletoe grows in large, bushy clumps high in trees and becomes visible when the last of the host tree's leaves fall. Marty Ross, writing in The New York Times a decade ago, described how his father would harvest the mistletoe in his grandmother's Arkansas backyard with a shot from his squirrel rifle.

Birds deposit the seeds that high, and the plant then sends its tendril roots under the bark of the tree to feed. That's why it is often called "the vampire plant."

Its little white berries emerge at the time of the winter solstice, which made it the perfect floral accessory for Druid rituals.

According to legend, mistletoe was harvested with golden knives, and two white bulls were sacrificed. Boiled with the blood of the bulls, mistletoe was thought to have aphrodisiac as well as fertility powers. But I think the Druids thought that about everything.

In the Middle Ages, mistletoe was also used to keep away witches, trolls and fairies, to heal sick livestock, to cure epilepsy and measles. Pregnant women would carry a sprig around in a pocket to ensure a live birth.

The kissing traditions seem to have emerged in 18th-century English country houses. Mistletoe - of a variety different from what's found in the Americas - remains abundant in England.

Each time young lovers kiss under a mistletoe bundle, a white berry is removed. When all the berries are gone, the kissing is over, according to tradition.

Superstition had it that the mistletoe was never to touch the ground between its harvest and its removal as the last Christmas green. And some homeowners kept it up all year to ward off lightning strikes.

According to a story in the London Sunday Mirror, the bundle of mistletoe would then be ceremoniously burned. "Otherwise, it's 12 months of bad luck and celibacy."

Mistletoe has a vested interest in keeping its host tree alive, but in times of drought and stress, a large infestation of the parasitic plant can cause dieback or kill the tree altogether.

And it is hugely labor intensive to cut back the mistletoe or the branches it infests or to wrap it in black plastic to cut off its supply of sunshine.

Which begs the question: Why would a nuisance parasite plant like the dwarf mistletoe be considered endangered here in Maryland? Why would we want to protect a plant that scientists at colleges and universities elsewhere are trying find a way to get rid of?

"It is native," said Ellen Nibali, horticultural consultant at the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension, suggesting some kind of squatter's rights. "And you never want to lose a native species as a general principle."

Also, she said, mistletoe is part of the habitat or the life cycle of birds, butterflies and perhaps other insects. Mistletoe was once rumored to cure cancer, so until we learn all of its chemistry, it would be wise to hang onto it.

"Until we know what we've got, it is wise to hold onto all the plants we can," said Nibali.

Mistletoe is not a threat to humans. It is the berries, not the leaves, that are toxic in the European variety of mistletoe. The American variety, which comes mostly from the Carolinas, is harmless, said Angel Bivens, public education coordinator for the Maryland Poison Center.

(If someone ingests berries whose origin you are unsure of, Bivens says you should call the Poison Center at 800-222-1222. She also makes the point that poinsettias are not toxic to children.)

Nevertheless, the berries are almost always removed from the leaves and replaced with a small plastic cluster before being sold by florists.

That's just another of the contradictions surrounding mistletoe.

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