A controversial ‘Plant of the Month’ this time! Even though we think warmly of Mistletoe as being the Christmas foliage that brings people closer together underneath it, but did you know it is actually a hemiparasitic plant?! Let’s dive deeper into the world of Mistletoe for our December PotM!
Mistletoe species grow on a wide range of host trees, some of which experience side effects including reduced growth, stunting, and loss of infested outer branches. Mistletoe grows in the branches of trees such as hawthorn, poplar and lime, although in the UK the most common hosts are cultivated apple trees.
Despite being considered pests, some species of mistletoe have recently been recognized as ecological keystone species. A broad array of animals depend on mistletoe for food, consuming the leaves and young shoots, transferring pollen between plants and dispersing the sticky seeds, their juicy berries are eaten and spread by birds.
Why do we kiss underneath the Mistletoe?
The practice was part of the Saturnalia festival in ancient Greece, where mistletoe was referred to as ‘oak sperm’ and the plant played a symbolic fertility role in early marriages. Mistletoe was equally revered by the Celts, who esteemed its berries as the semen of Taranis, god of thunder. While the Romans associated mistletoe with peace, love and understanding and hung it over doorways to protect the household.
The serving class of Victorian England is credited with perpetuating the tradition as we mostly know it today. The tradition dictated that a man was allowed to kiss any woman standing underneath mistletoe, and that bad luck would befall any woman who refused the kiss. A practice that is luckily not very much of this time, but that is how kissing under the mistletoe came to be.
‘From the centre of the ceiling, old Wardle had just suspended with his own hands a huge bunch of mistletoe, and this same branch of mistletoe instantaneously gave rise to a scene of general and most delightful struggling and confusion, in the midst of which Mr Pickwick, with a gallantry that would have done honour to a descendant of Lady Tollimglower herself, took the old lady by the hand, led her beneath the mystic branch, and saluted her in all courtesy and decorum.’— The Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens