While watching a certain holiday television special that involves a reindeer with a shiny nose, I heard a familiar tune with the phrase, “Oh, ho the mistletoe, hung where you can see.”
Growing up, my family always hung mistletoe in the front foyer, whereby my mother would nail anyone that entered with a smooch. In 2020, carrying on the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe should only occur within your immediate family’s bubble/pod, for obvious reasons.
Mistletoe is certainly a unique plant with over 1,500 species worldwide. One species native to Ohio is known as American mistletoe (phoradendron leucarpum), though you’ll have to travel to the southern counties along the Ohio River to encounter it. Mistletoe prefers a birds-eye view, growing as much as 50 feet high in treetops. During summer, mistletoe is hard to spot, hidden by the host tree’s leaves. Once leaf fall occurs, the evergreen mistletoe stands in stark contrast to the dead-looking tree upon which it sits. White berries adorn the plant which has thick, fleshy leaves.
The plant, considered semi-parasitic, thieves nutrients and water from its tree host through a structure known as a haustorium. Displaying live mistletoe must be done carefully, as the leaves, stems, and berries are known to be poisonous to humans and pets. Birds, seemingly immune from mistletoe’s poisonous aspect, eat and thereby disperse its seeds.
So, why do so many people hang a poisonous, semi-parasitic, homely-looking plant in their homes during the holiday season? Simply put, it’s tradition. Ingrained in our behaviors are customs and heritage that for many, transcend generations or centuries.
Pagans hung mistletoe as a symbol of good luck and fertility during the holidays. Kissing under the mistletoe was commonly practiced some 500 years ago in England. People of Norse regions would kiss under the mistletoe for good luck. Romans thought placing mistletoe over a door protected the dwelling inhabitants. Due to mistletoe plants remaining green during the long winter, the ancient Greeks believed that the plant possessed medicinal/magical qualities.
Plants, including the mistletoe, were important to ancient peoples before us. Present day, plants provide us food, fiber, timber, medicine, habitat for wildlife, the air we breathe, and a sense of well-being. Regardless of whether you hang that poisonous, semi-parasitic, homely-looking plant in your home during the holiday season or not, the Delaware Soil and Water Conservation District wishes you a holly jolly “kiss-mas.”
Kim Marshall is the communication specialist for the Delaware Soil & Water Conservation District. For information, go to www.soilandwater.co.delaware.oh.us.