WORDS: Kissing is simply fun!

Poinsettias, Christmas trees and holly. These are the plants that come to mind during the Christmas season. Yule logs and chestnuts roasting over the fire. All these things have cozy and warm connotations.  But among Christmasy plants, there is one that is the odd man out. We know it as mistletoe(Phorandendorn flavescens). Mistletoe is the odd man out because, to put it bluntly, it’s a parasite.  No one likes ‘hangers-on’ and that’s literally what mistletoe is. It’s a plant that grows into the bark of trees and robs nutrients from the trees to support itself. Now officially mistletoe is hemiparasitical, which means it doesn’t necessarily need all its nutrients from its host. Next time you look at a sprig of mistletoe growing in the branches of an oak tree, you will notice that it’s leathery leaves are green. Mistletoe actually carries on photosynthesis and can manufacture nutrients on its own. In other words, mistletoe is just lazy. It steals from its host (say the oak tree in your yard) because it just can’t be bothered to do “all” of the work by itself.  Now, let’s get to the name ‘mistletoe’. Mistletoe is an Anglo Saxon word derived from the word ‘mistal’ and the word ‘tan’. ‘Tan’ means twig and ‘mistal’ means dung. Not to go too far into etymology, the English Missel Thrush is a bird that spreads mistletoe around (to put it the most delicately that I can) by eating mistletoe berries and pooping the seeds out .  So, next time you pick up a branch of mistletoe, just think of the English Thrush,trees and bird poop-  ‘dung twig’. The plant has other names, as well, like ‘kiss and go’, ‘chuchmen’s greeting’, ‘muslin bush’, and ‘herb-de-la-croix’.But we are a long way from Christmas at this point. I told you that mistletoe is the odd man out. It’s a parasite and spread about by bird poop. It is even known to kill trees when they become overly infested. So, let’s get to Christmas, the happy part. Somewhere back in ancient history, folks back in Europe (Vikings, Druids, etc) thought mistletoe had all kinds of special powers. Some thought it was spontaneously generated  in the tops of  trees by lightning strikes. Gods and goddesses in ancient Rome messed around with mistletoe, as well. This was all because the plant seemed to appear like magic between heaven and earth high in the branches of old trees. Such a powerful plant was sure to effect fertility and have aphrodisiatic  powers.  So, somewhere in the 1800’s, people started kissing under mistletoe. It brought good luck. The etiquette went like this. As long as there was a berry on the mistletoe, a young fellow was allowed to steal a kiss from any young lady who happened to be standing under it. For each stolen kiss a berry had to picked. At the end of the season when all the berries were picked and gone, so were the stolen kisses.   Mistletoe was also placed under pillows for good luck (something like kids putting a tooth under the pillow for the tooth fairy). Brides also threw mistletoe into the fire. If it burned quickly, the marriage would turn out well; but if it sputtered and burned poorly, then the marriage was in for hard times. And so this semi-parasitic plant carries with it special qualities associated with romance and fertility .  As many traditions seem to migrate to Christmas celebrations,so it was with mistletoe. In Edwardian England, mistletoe was sold in the market places during the Christmas season. Mistletoe and Christmas became thoroughly intwined. Dickens even refers to it. And so this little evergreen twig and parasite of a plant, hung in doorways during the holidays, is  associated with cheerful expressions of affection- kissing. Anthropologists say ninety percent of world cultures do a bit of kissing (and the other ten percent probably do but don’t talk about it). Leaving aside bird poop, lightning strikes, Roman gods and plants with special powers, kissing is simply fun, and we like to come up with occasions to do more of it. Mistletoe at Christmas is one of them. But what about horticulture and the mistletoe up in your trees? Tim Baggett of Old Gappy Tree Service says that heavy infestations of mistletoe in your tree does indeed weaken them. But removing it completely is impossible. It can be manually removed and scraped away from the branches, but the mistletoe will reappear from its roots that have penetrated the tree’s bark. Chemical applications are available, but they are not completely effective either. Pragmatically, Tim says the best course is to just leave the mistletoe alone, unless you want to come to the aid of an old tree by physically removing the mistletoe every once in a while to give the tree an advantage over the mistletoe that is stealing nutrients from it.  I say the best course is to either bring mistletoe in from outdoors and get a few stolen kisses or you might even take your kids and family out under the trees during the holiday and give them a kiss and tell them you love them. Tis the Season.

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