7 Weird and Wonderful Facts About Mistletoe
by Catherine Morris | December 8, 2020, updated 4 months ago
Christmas is just around the corner, which means the festive decorations are out in full force and so too are the weird holiday traditions.
It doesn't get much weirder than hanging up a bit of plant and cajoling people into kissing under it. If your holiday memories are anything like mine, just seeing the bright green leaves and fat white buds of mistletoe brings back memories of socially awkward interactions you'd rather forget.
So what's with mistletoe? Why is it so closely linked with Christmas and why (dear God, why) are we still kissing under it? We have the answers, along with a little bit of trivia so you can be that guy and dazzle people with your mistletoe know-how at the next virtual holiday quiz night.
1. It's a vicious, tree-eating parasite
It may seem like a friendly festive shrub but in reality mistletoe is a life-sucking, voracious killer… of trees. The plant we've come to associate with Christmas kisses likes to attach itself to tree roots and steal nutrition and water, slowly leaching the life from its host.
Not so romantic now, huh?
This parasitic behaviour is what keeps mistletoe green all winter long. So it's basically a leafy succubus, staying virile and healthy at the expense of other flora. Its healthy green leaves made mistletoe a symbol of fertility in ancient European cultures, which helps explain where the kissing tradition originated—smooching under a bit of greenery was the ultimate aphrodisiac in those days.
2. It's poisonous
So don't let your 5 year old cousin snack on those white berries, and keep it far, far away from curious pets who like to snack on anything within reach of their face.
3. It's great for insomniacs
While North American mistletoe can be toxic, the European species are more of a healing than a harming kind of plant. They've been used to treat diabetes, hypertension, menstrual problems, and even epilepsy, but there's another widely applicable use that hasn't got as much attention—sleep.
Mistletoe relaxes muscles, eases heart palpitations and treats anxiety, making a soothing cup of mistletoe tea a great option for anyone who has a hard time winding down. Mistletoe can also be taken as a tincture, but herbalists recommend starting with a small dose to see how you react. As with any herbal remedy, buy from a good source and exercise caution if pregnant or if you have any underlying medical conditions. If in doubt, always check with your naturopath first.
4. It shows up in Norse mythology
The god in question was Baldur, one of Odin's sons and apparently a popular guy in Asgard. One day Baldur had a premonition of his own death and everyone freaked out. Taking the initiative, his mother extracted a promise from everything in the kingdom not to harm her son. She neglected to consult mistletoe—big mistake.
Long story short, the trickster god Loki decided to do a bit of arts and crafts, creating an arrow made of mistletoe that eventually ended up deep in Baldur's chest.
Some versions of the tale have a happy ending, where Baldur is released from the underworld and everyone throws a huge party with lots of mistletoe and celebratory kissing.
5. The druids loved it too
It was a sacred plant for the druids and used to create tonics and other herbal remedies to encourage fertility, and get people in the baby-making mood. As Christianity moved into Europe and blended with the existing pagan traditions, mistletoe made the transition from sacred elixir to decorative holiday accessory.
6. It's been used to treat cancer
Results of the trial showed that patients given infusions of mistletoe extract as part of their treatment saw improvement in their energy, sleep quality, appetite, pain, and emotional state. Mistletoe also improves immune system function and, when injected into tumour cells, slows the progression of certain cancers.
7. It gets its name from bird poop...no really
Mistletoe comes from the Anglo Saxon words for 'dung' and 'twig'. Put those two together and it translates to ‘'dung on a twig'. Early herbalists noticed that mistletoe frequently appeared on branches where birds had...ahem...done their business. Being literal, they named it as they found it.
The practice of pinning mistletoe over doorways seems to have started in the Middle Ages as a, frankly creepy, way for men to snatch a kiss from the object of their affections. It didn't matter if you weren't in a kissing mood, either—refusing an amorous advance was apparently bad luck so, surprise!, now you're cursed because you didn't fancy locking lips with some plant fondling stranger.
In today's enlightened times, we're now seeing the true potential of mistletoe—it looks nice around the house in December, but it's also a potent healer that deserves to be a part of your new year's health resolutions.
Catherine Morris is an award-winning journalist with a bad case of wanderlust and a passion for all things health and wellness. Originally from Northern Ireland, she worked as a news and feature writer for media outlets in the UK, South Africa, France and the Caribbean before settling in Canada. Catherine now lives in Alberta with her husband and rescue mutt and spends her time happily exploring the great outdoors with both.