Find someone, usually a lover, standing under a parasitic plant and kiss him or her. This doesn’t sound in the least romantic, particularly when you think that in its natural habitat this parasitic plant would be choking off the vascular activity of its host and slowly killing it. Why does standing under the mistletoe invite a kiss? It makes no sense horticulturally. Where did this tradition come from?
Before I explore the tradition, here’s a bit of background on the plant. There are five different families and hundreds of species of mistletoe, and they grow on a wide range of host plants, both deciduous and evergreen. The largest family alone has more than 900 species. In Nevada and much of the West, our mistletoe is one of a number of species of dwarf mistletoe (Arceuthobium sps). It looks nothing like the kissing mistletoe (Phoradendron sps), which has rounded green leaves and white berries. All mistletoes, whether dwarf or kissing, are usually considered pests because they feed off trees. They can cause severe damage by retarding and deforming growth and eventually killing their host plants by robbing them of food and water.
In addition to their parasitic nature, the entire plant, particularly the leaves, stems and berries are poisonous if eaten. This leads us to the tradition of the kissing mistletoe, which seems to have started in Norse mythology.
The Norse god Baldur was so beloved by all the gods that his mother Frigg, the goddess of love, made all the animals and plants in the world take an oath not to hurt him. However, she forgot to include the mistletoe. Nothing ever hurt Baldur; until one day, the jealous Loki made a dart from mistletoe and had it used to murder Baldur. One version says that Frigg’s tears became the berries on the plant. She decreed that mistletoe could never be used as a weapon again, and those who passed underneath it would receive her kiss.
Another version says the gods were able to bring Baldur back from the dead. This so delighted Frigg that she declared mistletoe a symbol of love and kissed anyone who passed below it.
The Celtic Druids felt that mistletoe was a symbol of life and fertility because it could bloom even in winter. Many other ancient cultures felt mistletoe had curative properties for menstrual cramps, epilepsy and ulcers among other things. So ignore the horticulture and continue the kissing!
JoAnne Skelly is the Carson City/Storey County Extension educator for University of Nevada Cooperative Extension and may be reached at email@example.com or 887-2252.