Cornell Cooperative Extension

December 24, 2012

Mistletoe a parasite?

Right this minute, you may have a parasite in your home. I’m not referring to fleas or a relative who doesn’t know when to go home; I’m referring to mistletoe. 

When we think of mistletoe, most of us envision the practice of hanging the plant during the holiday season and the tradition of a kiss being exchanged by those standing under it. Have you ever wondered where mistletoe comes from and how this tradition came about?

Mistletoe is a hemi-parasitic plant. A parasite is any plant or animal that needs another plant or animal to survive. Mistletoe is a slow-growing evergreen plant of the genus phoradendron that grows on a wide variety of trees but is also capable of living on its own, hence hemi-parasitic. The word “mistletoe” is thought to be derived from the word “mistel,” meaning dung, and “tan,” meaning twig. In other words, it is named after bird droppings on a branch! How romantic is that?

Birds are involved in the spread of mistletoe because they love to eat the sticky berries that are produced by the female plants. Any seeds that pass through their digestive tract or are left on branches when they rub their beaks to remove the sticky berry seeds are capable of germinating within weeks on the branch where they were deposited. After the seed germinates, it grows through the bark and into the tree’s vascular system via root-like structures called haustoria. This enables the plant to obtain water and mineral nutrients. Like most parasites, mistletoe usually does not kill its host, as the death of the host results in the death of the parasite.

How do you suppose such a plant earned the reputation it has for promoting romance and frivolity? A myriad of myths and a fountain of folklore surround the topic, but my favorite is the story of the goddess Frigga, whose son, Balder, had a dream about his own death. His mother was greatly upset by this so she extracted a promise from air, fire, water, earth and every plant and animal that no harm would come to Balder. Balder’s enemy, Loki, knew that Frigga had neglected to extract a promise from lowly mistletoe and used it to make an arrow tip, which he tricked Balder’s brother, Hoder, the blind god of winter, into shooting at Balder and killing him. The tears of Frigga, the elements and all plants and animals of the world restored life to Balder. It is said that her tears became the white berries of mistletoe and that she declared mistletoe would never again be used for harm and that all who stood near it would know only love.

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