Mistletoe is a parasitic and somewhat toxic evergreen plant that has been revered for thousands of years by cultures worldwide. There are a variety of traditions and myths associated with mistletoe.
Most of them are connected with the winter solstice and the return of light. At this time, when the deciduous oaks are barren, the balls of green mistletoe stand out and are revealed.
The ancient Celts believed mistletoe to be so sacred that it was not allowed to touch the ground. It was cut and collected by the Druid priests, who climbed the oak tree host and dropped the harvested
plants into blankets below. The Celts then hung the leaves and berries in their homes to promote good fortune and peace.
Mistletoe was even endowed with such power that enemies meeting by chance under the canopy of oak trees with mistletoe would lay down arms, exchange greetings and a truce could be forged for a full day!
Kissing under the mistletoe is a tradition we are familiar with today. This common practice may also have developed from Celtic Druid customs.
The seemingly independent appearance of the evergreen mistletoe in a tree that has lost its foliage furthers the belief that it represents vitality and fertility. The kissing custom also appears in Norse mythology, in which Freya, the Goddess of Love, bestow good luck and love on anyone who walks under the plant.
Mistletoe has been associated with a number of curative powers. In Europe, it has been used to treat epilepsy and is currently used in cancer drugs. In California, the native Cahuilla people in San Diego County used mistletoe for healing wounds. Other tribes used the herb for treating lice, dandruff, or hair loss.
The mechanics of mistletoe propagation are simple. Mistletoe seeds are spread by birds that eat the berries, and later, land on a tree branch and deposit the undigested berries. The seeds then germinate and establish on the host tree. Thus the origins of the word ‘mistletoe - a combination of the Anglo Saxon words‘mistel’ which means dung and ‘tan’ for twig. Translated literally, mistletoe means ‘dung-on-a-twig’.
In San Diego County, there are two varieties of mistletoe we are most likely to encounter:
Phoradendron macrophyllum, Big Leaf Mistletoe, which is parasitic on sycamores, cottonwoods, willows, and alders.
Phoradendron leucarpum tomentosum, Oak Mistletoe, obviously parasitic on oaks.
Etymology: Thomas Nuttall named the genus Phoradendron from the Greek, phor (a thief) and dendron (tree),alluding to the genus’ parasitic habit