Home & Garden Columns

Arboreal Estate and a Yule Tradition: Mistletoe

By Ron Sullivan
Tuesday December 11, 2007

One of the several “pagan” plants that appear all over in the midwinter holiday season is one that lives in trees: mistletoe. It’s Frazer’s eponymous Golden Bough.  

What’s it doing up there in the doorway? Amalgamating at least two pagan lineages: Kissing under the mistletoe is a Nordic peace gesture, and a Druidic fertility blessing. Both ideas spring from mistletoe’s odd lifestyle, as not quite a terrestrial plant.  

Balder, the Norse god not of comb-overs but of sun and joy, had a premonition of death. His mother Frigga, hearing this, was rattled enough to extract a promise from every creature of the air, water, and land never to harm her son. They agreed—after all, to harm the sun god would leave them freezing in the dark—except for mistletoe. As it isn’t of any realm, but suspended between sky and earth, Frigga forgot to ask. Now that Balder was invulnerable, the gods made a game of using him for target practice. Boy, the Aesir knew how to have fun.  

Loki, the god of mischief, wickedness, and general nasty doings, noticed Frigga’s lapse and made a spear with a mistletoe tip. (It’s reputedly tough as well as toxic.) He handed it to Balder’s blind brother, Hoder, who launched it and killed Balder. After much weeping and grief, Frigga managed to resurrect him. Her tears became mistletoe’s white berries, the plant was forgiven and made sacred to her, and warriors who met under it kept peace.  

The Druids noticed mistletoe’s aerial habits, too. It was gathered with a gold knife or sickle and caught on cloths before it could touch the ground and discharge its power. Some Europeans preferred knocking it down with a rock or arrow and catching it. This does limit one’s chance of breaking one’s neck falling out of a tree. There are various times for gathering mistletoe; one is the fifth (or sixth) night after the winter solstice’s new moon.  

It was used in cultures from northern Europe to Africa, North America to Southeast Asia, as a healing herb. (Don’t try it; leaf, branch, and berry, mistletoe is poisonous.) It was also a fertility charm: a sprig was fed to the first cow who calved after New Year’s to bless the whole herd. Some saw the Green Man in it. As it’s evergreen, and gets noticed in deciduous trees when their own leaves have fallen, it was thought to be the tree’s green soul. Some used it to ward off fire and lightning; it was thought to be engendered by lightning strikes and have the power to control its source.  

Its name, also based on an idea about its origin, is less romantic than it sounds: By some accounts, it translates to “dung on a twig.” In the good old days of the Dark Ages, when maggots rose spontaneously from manure piles and geese from barnacles, bird droppings were thought to turn into mistletoe. That’s close to the truth. Mistletoe spreads its sticky seed via the birds who eat its berries and either plop undigested seed onto another branch, or wipe it off their bills onto the bark. It grows slowly and takes a few years to reach maturity. 

Mistletoe has separate sexes; the berries are on females. It’s a denizen of the air only with help, standing on the shoulders of giants. It’s mostly parasitic, getting water and nutrients from its host trees through haustoria, a functional combination of roots and vampire fangs. It has leaves and chlorophyll, and can make its own food on too. There are dwarf mistletoe species without much in the way of leaves, entirely parasitic and pests mostly of conifers. Mistletoe can hurt an individual branch, and infestation to the point of threatening a tree is not unheard of. Most mistletoes aren’t all that dangerous to trees, though (as with Spanish moss) you might find an arborist eager to make a buck “curing” your tree of the green plague. 

Our native mistletoe is not the same species as the one the Druids and the Aesir were messing with, though they’re related. Our most common species locally are Phoradendron macrophyllum and P villosum; the European is Viscum album. There are other species in North America, most fairly similar.  

There’s lots of the native growing on oaks in the hills around Livermore, for example. Don’t go knocking it down; it’s an important food for interesting birds like cedar waxwing and phainopepla, an elegant glossy black songbird with a cardinal-style crest.  

We also have the legendary European species nearby. Luther Burbank imported some and tried his hand at raising it. As he was Luther Burbank, of course it worked, and now a population of Viscum album is radiating, tree by tree, from his working lab farm in Sebastopol. As far as I know, he didn’t try crossing his mistletoe with cacao beans to produce homegrown chocolate kisses.