www.barrowvoice.co.uk - First Publised 1975
3,000 copies published quarterly and delivered FREE to all households in Barrow upon Soar

Mistletoe

The pearly white berries and sage green leaves of mistletoe remind you of Christmas almost as much as holly does. Stealing a kiss under a strategically placed bunch of mistletoe is a long held tradition. For how long I wondered? And why? And how does it survive up in the tops of trees when not planted in soil?

First of all: what is it? Well, ours is the European mistletoe and it’s actually a parasite feeding off its host tree, mostly old apple trees, although occasionally lime or poplar will do. Surprisingly, in this country the Midlands is a good place for it to grow well.

The first part of the word mistletoe is 'mist', which meant dung in Anglo-Saxon. The end part 'toe' comes from an old word for twig. Dung on a twig... a poo stick! The dung on the twig contained the seeds of the plant.

The white berries of the mistletoe are popular with some birds, the mistle thrush for example, as well as winter visitors like fieldfare and redwings. Not all birds will try white berries, preferring the brighter coloured ones; others are put off by the sticky 'superglue' effect when squashed. This actually helps the seeds to grow: the poor bird’s beak gets so sticky that it rubs it hard against a rough branch to dislodge it and this pushes the seed into a crack in the bark… just what the plant wanted!

As the weather warms, the seed pushes a root-like structure down into the water and food supply of the tree and helps itself. One small clump of mistletoe probably does no harm to the tree, but with lots of clumps it may cause the tree to struggle to survive. The young plant, high up on the branch, doesn't rely entirely on the tree for its food because, being an evergreen, its leaves can use sunlight to make food through photosynthesis.

It can be some years from seed to fruiting, four or five years at least, and that's if another bird doesn't come along and steal the seed or seedling from its crevice!

Looking back in time, mistletoe has always symbolised something. The ancient Greeks said it gave passage to the underworld, while the Romans used it as decoration for their feast of Saturnalia. The Druids believed it was sacred, a protection from evil, and that you could use mistletoe as a cure-all for disease as it contained the spirit of the tree. Surprising really, as every part of the mistletoe is poisonous!

According to the Anglo-Saxons, kissing under the mistletoe was connected to the god Freya, the god of love, beauty and fertility. If a couple exchanged a kiss under the mistletoe it was said to be a promise to marry, with the hope of happiness and a long life ahead. Therefore kissing under the mistletoe is about love, health and happiness… all jolly good reasons to keep the traditions alive! So I wish you a very happy Christmas.

Maggie J