Written by Gayle Fisher

The name mistletoe comes from two Anglo Saxon words ‘Mistel’ (which means dung) and ‘tan’ (which means) twig or stick. So you could translate Mistletoe as ‘poo on a stick’! Not exactly romantic is it? Mistletoe is especially interesting botanically because it is a partial parasite (a “hemiparasite”). As a parasitic plant, it grows on the branches or trunk of a tree and actually sends out roots that penetrate into the tree and take up nutrients. But mistletoe is also capable of growing on its own; like other plants it can produce its own food by photosynthesis.

The mistletoe that is commonly used as a Christmas decoration (Phoradendron flavescens) is native to North America and grows as a parasite on trees from New Jersey to Florida. In the Middle Ages and later, branches of mistletoe were hung from ceilings to ward off evil spirits. In Europe they were placed over house and stable doors to prevent the entrance of witches. It was also believed that the oak mistletoe could extinguish fire. Kissing under the mistletoe is first found associated with the Greek festival of Saturnalia and later with primitive marriage rites.

In Scandinavia, mistletoe was considered a plant of peace, under which enemies could declare a truce or warring spouses used it to kiss and make-up. Later, the eighteenth-century English credited it with a certain magical appeal and invented the kissing ball. I have oak mistletoe growing here on the farm. It is spread by birds eating the seeds and apparently pooping them in the very tip-top of the tree. I never see mistletoe growing on lower branches. Since I am not willing or capable of climbing a tree, this leaves a gun, bow and arrow or a bucket truck to bring down this Christmas tradition.

My son-in-law, who is a good shot, said he would get me some. He wasn’t gone long and with only one shot returned with an enormous branch by my standards. This branch of Mistletoe is 2ft by 3ft. In the past years when collecting this plant for Christmas decorating, my options were always small sprigs around 4 to 8 inches in size. If you have acquired fresh mistletoe keep it cool until you are ready to use it. An outside unheated building is best like a shed or garage. You can mist it with cold water if it looks a bit dry.

Basically if these simple instructions are followed you can expect your mistletoe to keep looking fresh for up to a month. I have my prize branch twirling in the wind on my front porch; another small piece is hanging under a doorway inside, waiting for couples to come kiss under the dung. Now, for more singing, hit it Burl. “Oh, by golly have a holly, jolly Christmas this year!”

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Gayle Fisher

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