The little white berries necessary for a merry Christmas Germinating mistletoe seedlings
History and uses
Much of what follows is from the excellent "Mistletoe Pages" website
. Mistletoe was first recorded botanically by William Turner in 1538.1.
It was celebrated in legend by the ancient Greeks as the "golden bough" used by Aeneas to find his way to the abode of the dead. It is such a mysterious plant that it isn't surprising that legends have built up around it. The Roman author Pliny told that mistletoe was valued by Druids, and had to be cut from an oak tree using a golden sickle without letting it touch the ground. This has little foundation in fact, but has been adopted into modern Druidry and is fixed in our imaginations. Mistletoe is deeply embedded in Norse myth in which the goddess Friga extracted a promise from everything found on or growing in earth would never harm her popular son Baldur. The nasty God Loki realised that mistletoe wasn't part of this pact, and duped Hod, the blind brother of Baldur into stabbing and killing him with it. Frigg's tears became its white berries, and the plant became a symbol of peace and reconciliation.2.
As a winter solstice flowering plant, the early church, which did not like its pagan fertility associations could not stop it becoming associated with Christmas, and this has persisted with the tradition of "kissing under the mistletoe". After its use for mild (consensual) sexual harassment, it should be kept indoors to ward off evil, until fresh mistletoe is brought in the following winter.
Mistletoe is mildly toxic, but has been considered to boost fertility. It can be bought dried for making tea which is claimed to help lower blood pressure. It has, not without great controversy, been claimed as a potential medication for cancer. The only non-folklore historical use of the plant is to a component of bird-lime
, a sticky concoction spread on branches to trap songbirds.
Mistletoe can be grown in your garden. You can buy an already infected crabapple tree, or try to start a colony yourself using the guidance here
from the RHS.
Mistletoe berries are a winter food source for birds such as the mistle thrush, and for the winter visitors redwings and fieldfares.
Eight species of insect are mistletoe feeders, including the rare mistletoe marble moth Celypha woodiana and specialist mistletoe weevil Ixapion variegatum, a leaf miner that goes by ther vernacular name "kiss me slow weevil", after the popular use of its host plant.
1. Pearman, D. The Discovery of the Native Flora of Britain and Ireland. 2017. BSBI, Bristol. p425
Page written and compiled by Steve Head