For the love of mistletoe

MistletoeWill you be decorating your house with sprigs of mistletoe this year?   Together with holly, it’s one of the oldest and best-loved traditions of Christmas, although I’m pretty sure that fewer people these days will kiss under the mistletoe than, say, 50 or 100 years ago.   And that’s a shame!

Where did this connection with mistletoe originate?

To find out, we have to go back to the time of the Druids, those white-robed sages of Celtic lore.   The Druids never liked to write anything down, so we must rely on the observations of the 1st century philosopher Pliny the Elder.  Pliny seems to have been the Roman equivalent of David Attenborough, and in his ‘Natural History‘ this is what he has to say about the Druids and mistletoe:

“The Druids… hold nothing more sacred than mistletoe and the tree on which it grows, provided it is a hard-oak.  They also choose groves of hard-oak for its own qualities, nor do they perform any sacred rites without leaves from these trees, so that from this practice they are called Druids after the Greek word for oak…”

The Romans had had first-hand experience of the Druids, whom they hated and feared in equal measure.  The island of Anglesey was one of their last bastions, but in AD 60 two legions of the Roman army under Suetonius Paulinus finally succeeded in driving them out, laying waste to their ‘sacred groves’.

What happened in these sacred groves?   It might have had something to do with mistletoe.  Pliny explains…

“Mistletoe… is rarely found on hard-oaks, but when it is discovered, it is collected with great respect on the sixth day of the moon.  Then, greeting the moon with the phrase that in their own language means ‘healing all things’, the Druids with due religious observance prepare a sacrifice and banquet beneath a tree, and bring two white bulls whose horns are bound for the first time.  A priest in a white robe climbs the tree and with a golden sickle cuts the mistletoe, which is caught in a white cloak.  Then they sacrifice the victims praying that God may make his gift propitious for those to whom he has given it.  They think that mistletoe given in a drink renders any barren animal fertile and is an antidote for all poisons.”

(Image from Histoire de France – Cours Elémentaire, Lavisse/Colin, ed.1919)

Having painted such a vivid scene in white, green and blood-red, Pliny adds rather sniffily:  “So great is the power of superstition among most peoples in regard to relatively unimportant matters.”

At least he gives us a clue to the kissing tradition:  mistletoe was believed to promote fertility and offer protection against illness.  I pondered the significance of two white bulls and wondered if it might have something to do with the berries themselves and the arrangement of the leaves, because they grow in pairs.   As for the golden sickle… the six-day-old moon would have been a crescent.   Was this story merely symbolic, purely to scare the Romans?   If so, it seems to have worked!

Mistletoe (3)

But there’s more…

Mistletoe-infested tree, Cambridgeshire (pic by OrangeDog via Wikimedia)

Mistletoe-infested tree, Cambridgeshire (pic by OrangeDog via Wikimedia)

In Norse mythology, the god Baldr the Beautiful was slain by an arrow made from mistletoe.   He had been suffering from nightmares – premonitions of his death – so his mother, Frigg, decreed that no weapon fashioned from rock or anything living upon the earth should be allowed to harm him.   As with many folk tales, there was a fatal loophole, in that mistletoe does not, in fact, grow directly on the earth;  and the jealous god Loki contrived that Baldr should be slain by a dart made from its wood.   There was an outpouring of grief at his death, and his funeral was attended by beings from all of the Nine Worlds.  Instead of being consumed by rage, Baldr’s mother decided that mistletoe should become a symbol of peace and love.

For the Norsemen, Baldr’s death marked the lowest point of the seasonal cycle, when winter and night were synonymous with death and decay.   There is surely a link here with mistletoe being brought into houses around the winter solstice.

Similarly, in Anglo-Saxon folklore, mistletoe was linked with Freya, the goddess of love (some historians believe she and her Norse counterpart were one and the same).   Enemies who chanced to meet under a tree with mistletoe growing on it were under an obligation to cast their differences aside – although, in practice, you can’t help wondering how often this might have happened.   If a girl found herself ‘by chance’ underneath a sprig of mistletoe, a man was duty bound to kiss her.   I feel that the Druids might have regarded this behaviour as slightly frivolous.

Mistletoe still has echoes in our deepest folk memory, because traditionally it is not used to decorate churches at Christmas – too many pagan connotations, perhaps.

Mistletoe (2)

And the natural history…

Mistletoe is an evergreen plant, and the species which grows in Britain, Viscum album, is found across northern Europe and eastwards into parts of Asia.  It is often described as parasitic, but strictly speaking it is a hemi-parasite, because it is capable of photosynthesis through its own leaves, while depending on its host plant for water and some nutrients.  Nor does mistletoe kill the tree that it grows on, although when it penetrates the bark it causes a disfigurement as the tree is forced to grow new cells around it.  In winter, a tree that is infested with mistletoe makes a strange sight, with crazy nest-like clusters all over its branches.

Mistletoe in an apple tree, Essex (pic by Chilepine via Wikimedia)

Mistletoe in an apple tree, Essex (pic by Chilepine via Wikimedia)

For reasons that are still not fully understood, apple trees seem to be the preferred hosts of mistletoe, along with hawthorn and poplar.   Uncommon in Scotland, it occurs throughout England and parts of Wales, but its heartland is spread over Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Somerset.   These are the ‘orchard counties’, where fruit trees are traditionally grown, although factors such as soil and climate are now thought to play an important part.

How does mistletoe spread?   Once again, scientists are still debating this point.  You might imagine that mistle thrushes have a starring role, but although they do eat the berries, they swallow them whole and then excrete them, which is no use at all to mistletoe as it cannot grow on the ground.  For this reason, smaller birds such as blackcaps are much more helpful, because they wipe the seeds off onto a branch before eating the pulp of the fruit.

There are several insects which depend on mistletoe for their survival, including the mistletoe marble moth (Celypha woodiana) whose larvae burrow into mistletoe leaves over the winter and then feed on them in the spring.  This moth is now a Priority Species in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.

Even the seeds are heart-shaped! (pic by Stefan Lefnaer, via Wikimedia)

Even the seeds are heart-shaped! (pic by Stefan Lefnaer, via Wikimedia)

As for mistletoe itself, there is an ongoing project called the Mistletoe League which gathers information about the plant’s distribution;   as a species, mistletoe is not considered to be under threat, but its habitat is dwindling, and careful management of trees is needed in the long-term.

Mistletoe as a herbal remedy

In 1984, the preserved ‘bog body’ of an Iron Age man was found in a peat bog at Lindow Moss in Cheshire.   On examination, it was discovered that he had ingested some mistletoe pollen before he died;   this inevitably led to speculation about death potions and rituals, but it may just indicate that he was taking some kind of herbal medicine that contained mistletoe.

In the 1700s, mistletoe was believed to alleviate the symptoms of epilepsy, and today it is sometimes offered as a herbal extract (or a tea) to help ease high blood pressure or problems with blood circulation.    Like many plants that are used in this way, the berries do contain toxins, so special care should be taken to prevent children and pets from eating them.

The Tenbury Mistletoe Festival

MistletoeMeanwhile, if you happen to be in Tenbury Wells during early December, you will find their Mistletoe Festival in full swing.  In a tradition that goes back at least a hundred years, bunches of mistletoe and holly are gathered from the surrounding countryside and brought to Tenbury for auction.

There’s a programme of events, including music, poetry and storytelling.  You can find out more on the Festival website.

Sources:

Photos copyright © Colin & Jo Woolf unless otherwise stated


Further reading…

Holly tree and Loch Spelve, Isle of Mull, photographed in March 2012

Just like mistletoe, the legends associated with holly stretch back over thousands of years.  Take a look at my feature, ‘The Holly Bears the Crown‘.

More in my British trees series:

Comments

  1. Reblogged this on Totally Inspired Mind….

  2. Great history! I loved reading the different legends and backgrounds surrounding the mistletoe, and the pictures are beautiful!

  3. Thanks for writing this very interesting & informative article. Your photos are fantastic too.
    I have hypertension & epilepsy which mistletoe can alleviate. Thanks for the info.
    I will try and find it in a tea.

    Paulette L Motzko

  4. Zillions of mistletoe-infested trees round here. The farmers are legally obliged to remove it, but Norman farmers are pig-headed and can’t be faffed to obey the law!
    Love,
    ViV

    • Haha, I guess no one is going to go round all the trees to check! 🙂 We have little or no mistletoe in Scotland (at least that I have seen) – it seems to be too far north.

  5. Reblogged this on hocuspocus13 and commented:
    jinxx xoxo

  6. I didn’t expect to find a blog post about mistletoe so interesting – but it was and I am glad I read it!

  7. I’m not sure where mistletoe grows in the US except once while traveling in California I saw it in some live oaks. Great article.
    Slightly off subject, I found it interesting that the Romans drove out the Druids before they destroyed the last temple in Jerusalem. Mainly because my knowledge of the history of the British Isles is not what it should be. Can you recommend a remedy for that?

    • Thank you! I would be unsure what to advise you about mistletoe in the US – apparently Eastern mistletoe (a different species) grows there, but the European one (Viscum album) has also been introduced to California. Oh yes, the Romans! They have a lot to answer for. My own knowledge of British history could be a lot better – so I am not in the best position to advise about the remedy. I think the secret may be to find a particular period that interests you the most (so that the subject isn’t too vast) and then choose a few good books. 🙂

      • Thanks, Jo, maybe the Druids would be a start. I’m sure there’s lots of literature on them.😉

  8. Pliny the Elder=David Attenborough, FTW!

  9. Reblogged this on Solitary Witchin and commented:
    A lovely bit of insight into an old Yuletide classic…

  10. I still kiss under the mistletoe .Its not gone in my house;)

  11. Wow, thats really interesting……and I just thought it was for kissing under🙂 We saw huge balls of it along the German motor ways, massive, I took some photos, never seen such big ones. I did read somewhere once, lots of mistletoe, lots of snow……:)

    • That’s interesting! I have seen it myself, but further south from here. Sounds like Germany might be in for some snow, anyway! (Not sure that we are, just yet!)

  12. Another fascinating post from you Jo. Pliny, the Elder seems to have been quite the oracle on so many things! We hear of him constantly on QI. I love the photos of the Mistletoe in trees – a bit Dr Seuss looking. Your post sent me to Google to check as to whether we have Mistletoe in NZ and I am delighted to report that we have 9 different types, although the boffins think one is now extinct. I remember plastic Mistletoe being hung up to encourage kissing under it at Xmas time and all the while we have the most gorgeous plants although they are endangered so no cutting them. My good friends the Tui and Bellbird can open the special cap-like top of the flower! Here is a link: http://www.doc.govt.nz/conservation/native-plants/mistletoe/
    So as so often happens from one of your well-researched and interesting posts I learn such a lot! Thanks Jo.

    • Thank you, Lyn! Pliny was certainly a very knowledgeable kind of guy! I’m glad to hear you have so many mistletoe species in NZ – interested to hear that no harvesting is allowed, though. There’s no end to the Tui’s talents! Thanks for the link, I will take a look. 🙂

      • Possums like to chomp on our mistletoe. Tuis are very important to our natural world here. I was interested in our native bees and their work with the mistletoe. I doubt I have seen any NZ mistletoe sadly.

  13. How fascinating! I’d never thought about how, unlike holly and ivy, mistletoe isn’t used to decorate churches. As for its healing properties, a friend of mine took mistletoe (through a Camphill / Rudolf Steiner doctor, and with the blessing of her NHS doctors) to help her through chemotherapy, with very good results.

    • Thank you, Christine! And I’m so interested and glad to know about your friend, which is great news. Nature is amazing – I would love to know how we first knew about such things. 🙂

  14. Love the heart-shaped seeds! 🙂

  15. I had no idea that you could make a tea from mistletoe! But I think I will stick to standing under it and hoping for a kiss!

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