COLUMN: Mistletoe evident in tree tops

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By Jeneen Wiche

I like the winter landscape because I can see past the green canvas of summer into neighboring fields where horses graze and a pet cow that is almost as old as me slumbers. I can see mistletoe everywhere, too, driving down the interstate, walking in the park, sitting at a traffic light. It is there if you look into the canopies of trees devoid of their leafy-ness. We are obviously not the first to notice round globs of greenery nestled in tree tops.
As a child I thought it was some sort of exotic plant that my grandmother was able to acquire special for the holidays, sort of like poinsettias. Well, it turns out there are over 1,000 different species of mistletoe, several of which you may find in your own back yard.
The American mistletoes, Phorandendron serotinum and P. flavescens, are parasitic plants that need a host plant as a source of nutrients and water. Birds provide the transportation for the seeds — they eat the berries. The conventional wisdom used to be that birds disseminated the seeds as they wiped their sticky beaks on tree branches in an effort to remove the seeds. Well, that’s the cleaned up version. The bird is just taking a bathroom break and once the seed germinates, the mistletoe interfaces with the tree by forming a gall in order to secure itself to the tree. Once germination takes place it takes several years for the mistletoe to reach maturity. Really, mistletoe is only partially parasitic since the plant is green it clearly has the ability to photosynthesize for itself.
The American mistletoe species have toxic properties (unless you are a bird) so do not try processing them in anyway. The European species, however, are used in teas and have been studied for their anti-cancer properties. Lectin, which is present in European mistletoe, has been shown to cause cell death in some types of cancer; stimulate the immune system; and stimulate insulin secretion in diabetics — although none of this is universally proven or accepted.
No matter what country or what species, it is not surprising that there is much lore surrounding the mistletoe plant and that today we continue to believe in its power to induce love, or at least a stolen kiss. Imagine what people used to think about a plant that grows high in a dormant, leafless tree with no roots touching the earth.
So, the question remains, how did mistletoe find its way into our homes as a holiday decoration where stolen kisses are socially acceptable? The tradition has its roots in several places. The early Druids believed that mistletoe was endowed with many powers, including fertility and the ability to cure many ailments. Its association with fertility is likely what led to the 19th century American tradition as a holiday decoration for kissing. Another likely influence comes from Scandinavian mythology. Here’s a version of one of my favorite stories.
Balder, the son of Odin and Frigg, was a mischievous god who took many chances, thinking he was evincible. Fearing for her son’s life, Frigg made all earthly living things promise never to harm him, but she forgot about the seemingly insignificant mistletoe. Loki, an evil god, heard of this and made an arrow out of mistletoe and shot Balder dead. And, to make a long myth short, Frigg wept so over her son’s death that the gods took pity on her and brought him back to life. It is said that on that day Frigg declared mistletoe a symbol of peace and that those who pass beneath it should exchange a kiss. Today, the white berries of European mistletoe are called Frigg’s tears in Scandinavia. So, I guess we can say that mistletoe represents love and cooperation, not a bad reminder for the holiday season.