The second plant profile in the Christmas series focuses on my festive favourite – mistletoe! I hope you find it interesting. 🙂
Common name: Mistletoe
Translation: Viscum is the Latin name for mistletoe, the album part means “white” which is a reference to the berries it produces.
Type of plant: Parasitic evergreen shrub.
Origin: Native to Europe.
Cultivation: Viscum album is a parasitic plant, which means it lives off the water and nutrients of a host. It grows on several trees and shrubs in a variety of wooded habitats, the most common hosts it has in the UK are: poplar (Populus), lime (Tilia), apple (Malus) and hawthorn (Crataegus). It occurs from east Devon to Yorkshire, and is particularly common in central and southern England and in areas around London – such as Hertfordshire!
Resilience: Very hardy.
Pest and disease problems: Viscum album is generally pest and disease free.
1. Viscum album grows on the branches of other trees, to which it is attached by a swelling called a haustorium. It is also hemiparasitic which means that although it depends on its host for water and mineral nutrients, it is able to photosynthesise because it has green leaves and stems.
2. The stems of Viscum album appear characteristically forked, and it is possible to estimate the age of a mistletoe bush simply by counting the number of times that the branches fork and adding two years.
3. Viscum album is dioecious, which means that male and female flowers are produced on separate plants. It has small flowers which can be found in the forks of the branches that are reported to be insect-pollinated which are sweetly scented and produce nectar. The white berries appear from about October until May that contain a single green seed, surrounded by a sticky pulp.
4. The berries of Viscum album are often spread by birds from one tree to another, and this is how the large rounded clumps of mistletoe form in tree branches. Mistle thrushes and blackcaps commonly eat the berries, the association with the former being the possible origin of the common name of this plant.
5. Viscum album has had a long history of use in folk medicine. It has been used as an antiseptic, antispasmodic, astringent, digestive and diuretic, and, among the many ailments it has been used to treat, are epilepsy, ulcers, high blood pressure, rheumatism and certain types of cancer.
6. Viscum album contains a mixture of toxic proteins, viscotoxins and mistletoe lectins, the leaves and stems are reported to be more poisonous than the fruits. Poisoning often occurs when mistletoe is cut and brought indoors at Christmas time – although poisoning is rarely serious it is best to seek medical advice. Reactions vary, however as few as three or four berries may produce mild stomach ache; if large numbers are eaten gastroenteritis and diarrhoea may result. Pets can be at risk and some cases of dog poisoning have been fatal.
7. The Druids considered Viscum album to be a sacred plant and believed it had miraculous properties which could cure illnesses, serve as an antidote against poisons, ensure fertility and protect against the ill effects of witchcraft. Moreover, whenever enemies met under the mistletoe in the forest, they had to lay down their arms and observe a truce until the next day. From this has seemingly come the ancient custom of hanging a ball of mistletoe from the ceiling and exchanging kisses under it as a sign of friendship and goodwill.
8. Another version, however, says that this custom was connected to the Norse legend of Freya, goddess of love, beauty and fertility. According to legend, a man had to kiss any young girl who, without realizing it, found herself accidentally under a sprig of mistletoe hanging from the ceiling. Until the arrival of Christmas trees in the nineteenth century, the kissing bough held centre stage at Christmas – it is still a favourite festive decoration to this day.
9. The custom of exchanging a kiss under the mistletoe can still be found in many European countries as well as in Canada. If a couple in love exchanges a kiss under the mistletoe, it is interpreted as a promise to marry, as well as a prediction of happiness and long life. In France, the custom linked to mistletoe was reserved for New Year’s Day: “Au gui l’An neuf” translates as “Mistletoe for the New Year”. The original custom of kissing under the mistletoe was that a berry was picked from the sprig of mistletoe before the person could be kissed and when all the berries had gone, there could be no more kissing.
10. Mistletoe comes from the Anglo-saxon word “mistle” which means dung, because it was recorded that mistletoe grew where the mistle thrush deposited its droppings on the branches of trees. The Anglo-saxon word for twig was tan so a literal translation of the word mistletoe would be “dung on a twig”.
Plant Names Simplified (Johnson & Smith)
RHS A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants
Kew’s A-Z guide of Plants and Fungi (website)