Shakespeare mentions mistletoe in Titus Andronicus Act II in an unflattering reference “Overcome with moss and baleful mistletoe”, though why mistletoe should be so described is open to conjecture .. perhaps it was because the white berries form in winter, or it hangs in a tree open to the elements on bare branches at the time of the winter solstice.
Mistletoe in Silver Birch
Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grows attached to and within the branches of a tree or shrub. The word ‘mistletoe’ possibly comes from the old German Mist for dung and Tang for branch, since mistletoe can be spread in the faeces of birds moving from tree to tree, which can happen within 4 to 25 minutes. However the Old English word ‘mistel’ was also used for basil. Mistletoe had figured prominently in Greek and Roman mythology, while in Scandinavia the Norse God Baldr was killed with mistletoe.
In England and Europe the mistletoe favours apple trees, while the Druids held it in great veneration when found in oak trees; but as a parasitic plant, which mainly uses the host for water and mineral nutrients, it can be found in more than 200 trees and shrub species. Most mistletoe seeds are coated with a sticky material which are then spread by birds, such as the Mistle Thrush in Europe, the Silky Flycatcher in south western North America or the Mistletoebird in Australia amongst others.
European mistletoe has waxy white berries in dense clusters of two to six; in America the Eastern mistletoe is similar but has longer clusters of 10 or more berries – and it is this variety in the States that is harvested for Christmas. There’s a red berried mistletoe in New Zealand, which is a threatened species, while Australia has the grey mistletoe, which is beloved by the mistletoe bird. South Africa too has its mistletoes.
Megan of It’s All About Joy! Suggested that in the States mistletoe for Christmas would be shot down, that may well be so as mistletoe would be found out in the woods when the men were hunting. Here, in the UK, our gun laws are distinctly stricter – though I could imagine years ago that the hunters might have gathered it that way – or if they are of Robin Hood ilk would have used a bow and arrow.
Mistletoe is commonly used as a Christmas decoration, though such use was rarely alluded to until the 18th century, though it was not used in Church. According to custom, the mistletoe must not touch the ground between its cutting and its removal as the last of Christmas greens at Candlemas (2nd February); however in the old days it may have been left hanging through the year, often to preserve the house from lightning or fire, until it was replaced the following Christmas Eve. The tradition has spread throughout the English-speaking world but is largely unknown in the rest of Europe.
Mistletoe was often considered a pest that kills trees and devalues natural habitats, but was recently recognized as an ecological keystone species, an organism that has a disproportionately pervasive influence over its community. 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.
The sticky seed of the mistletoe stuck to a branch after it dropped.
The dense evergreen witches' brooms formed by the dwarf mistletoes of western North America also make excellent locations for roosting and nesting of the Northern Spotted Owls and the Marbled Murrelets. In Australia the Diamond Firetails and Painted Honeyeaters are recorded as nesting in different mistletoes. This behavior is probably far more widespread than currently recognized; more than 240 species of birds that nest in foliage in Australia have been recorded nesting in mistletoe.
If you like Asterix as a great many do (& I couldn’t resist this reference to mistletoe) - Getafix, the druid in the Asterix comics, was often seen up trees collecting mistletoe for his magic potion.
Asterix and the Big Fight (Le Combat des Chefs)
To fight Vitalstatistix, chief of Asterix’s tribe, the Romans enlist a Gallo-Roman Chief, Cassius Ceramix of Linoleum. Vitalstatistix would surely win with Getafix’ magic potion of invincibility, but the Romans plan to dispose of the druid long beforehand. In an effort to rescue him, Obelix accidentally puts Getafix out of action with a menhir (large stone), the impact of which causes amnesia and insanity.
I love those names! - who said Latin was dead?
According to a listing I found in Lesley Gordon’s “Green Magic”: Flowers with the Sentiments which they Represent” – Mistletoe’s sentiment = ‘I surmount all difficulties’. While she also let us know that the official floral emblem of Oklahoma is the American mistletoe.
If mistletoe will help us “surmount all difficulties at this time of year” – it is probably a good piece of greenery to have around, with or without its berries (once kissed up) and as it will preserve the house until next year.
Dear Mr Postman I send you and our readers a mistletoe Christmas card circa 1900! We're well and my mother is enjoying her Christmas cards with news from family and friends, from far and wide.
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