Archived Mountain Voices

Mistletoe’s link to romance goes way back

mtn voicesThe custom of decorating with mistletoe goes back to the ceremonials of the Druids. It is a reminder of the ancient custom of keeping green things indoors in winter as a refuge for the spirits of the wood exiled by the severities of cold. The European mistletoe was a different species than the one that occurs in our part of the world. But the early settlers soon located the American look-a-like and adopted it as one of their most important ceremonial evergreens.

There are several mistletoe species in North America. The one commonly associated with the Christmas season is Phoradendron serotinum, which is found from New Jersey to Florida and into the Midwest. The generic designation is descriptive of the mistletoe lifestyle: “phor” is derived from the Greek word for “thief,” while “dendron” means “tree.” This canny plant does in fact “steal” much of its sustenance from host trees. 

Mistletoe has been viewed as a pest that kills trees and devalues natural habitats, but in recent years it has also been recognized as an ecological keystone species that has a pervasive — often positive — influence over its community. 

The tactic mistletoes employ to establish themselves high in the boughs of deciduous trees is ingenious. The seeds are coated with a very sticky substance (viscin) that’s poisonous to humans, causing severe irritation of the digestive tract. Nevertheless, numerous birds — notably cedar waxwings and bluebirds — are inordinately fond of the translucent white berries.   

A seed that has been eaten retains its adhesive qualities in the bird’s digestive tract and when excreted clings to any branch that it might hit. Seeds also stick to the beaks and claws of foraging birds. When they pause to groom themselves on tree limbs, the birds unwittingly distribute mistletoe seeds from treetop to treetop throughout the woodlands.    

Germinating seeds then penetrate their hosts via short root-like structures called “haustoria” that allow mistletoe plants to siphon off water and minerals. Because mistletoe produces its own chlorophyll, it is only partially parasitic.     

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The tradition of smooching under the mistletoe descends from several cultures. It was a tradition of Greek festivals and marital ceremonies. A kiss under the mistletoe was interpreted as a promise to marry. 

Curiously enough, 19th century anthropologist James Mooney noted that the ancient Cherokees observed that mistletoe “is found always with its roots fixed in the bark of some supporting tree or shrub from which it draws its sustenance. Thereby, they called by the name (“uda’li”), which signifies “it is married.”

 

See that green plant about the tree

I’ve set a spot for you and me

To experience our first kiss

Close your eyes and hope we don’t miss.

— By Holly Somer 

 

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..      

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