“Oh No, the Mistletoe!”

Janet Laminack, County Extension Agent-Horticulture

Let’s talk about the most romantic of all holiday plants—mistletoe. You might have seen a mistletoe tree before, but like unicorns and the Cowboys winning another Super Bowl, it doesn’t exist. Mistletoe lives on other trees such as hackberries, oaks, elms, and pecans. It’s evergreen, so when the host tree loses its leaves, you are left with mistletoe. It can practically take over a tree. So that’s why in the winter, you might think that the tree is indeed a mistletoe tree.

Being green, mistletoe does photosynthesize its own food. However, it does take water and some nutrients from the host tree which makes it only semi-parasitic. Mistletoe doesn’t kill a tree, but it doesn’t help it either. Older or stressed trees could continue to decline with an overabundance of mistletoe.

Birds are the culprits that spread mistletoe around. They feast on the white berries and then poop out the seeds in other trees. Some berries with seed may even hitchhike on a bird to find a new location.

Once the seed has found a new tree, the roots delve into the bark of the branch. Often there is a swollen area where the mistletoe attaches. The roots can spend a few years growing before the mistletoe plant appears.

Getting rid of mistletoe is not easy. The best method is to cut the branch back at least 12 inches in from the mistletoe to ensure that all of the roots are removed. Merely cutting mistletoe where it comes out of the branch or snapping it off only makes the mistletoe more determined. For chemical control, a growth regulator can be used but the effects are only temporary.

How did this semi-parasite become associated with Christmas and kissing? First of all, it is noticeable in winter. The Celtic Druids believed this indicated vitality, and that the plant had mystical healing properties. They probably were the first to decorate with mistletoe to ward off evil spirits. Norse mythology has a dramatic tale in which mistletoe has a starring role. The berries are said to have been tears of a grieving goddess, which may have started the association with love.

Dear reader, I did scour the interwebs to find out when and how the modern tradition of kissing under the mistletoe started. One source claimed that an English musical from 1784 mentions kissing under the mistletoe. Washington Irving is credited for one of the first mentions in print of mistletoe at Christmas in an 1820 book. And in the classic A Christmas Carol, the first printing in 1843 included illustrations depicting kissing under the mistletoe. I found it interesting to read that the original custom involved removing a berry in order to be kissed. Once all the berries had been picked the kissing was over. That would definitely be a factor on “when to arrive at a party.” Of all the years to talk about kissing under mistletoe, this is not the right one. I hope the sprig of mistletoe hanging on my front porch doesn’t send a mixed message to all the hard-working delivery persons who have made my life safer this year. Perhaps I need to explain that it’s simply a symbol of love and friendship, not an invitation to spread germs!

Texas A&M AgriLife Extension provides equal opportunities in its programs and employment to all persons, regardless of race, color, sex, religion, national origin, disability, age, genetic information, veteran status, sexual orientation, or gender identity. The Texas A&M University System, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the County Commissioners Courts of Texas Cooperating.