You might see mommy kissing Santa Claus underneath it. Or it’s probably hanging in your home somewhere for holiday decoration. Either way, mistletoe is a popular part of the American holiday season.
Mistletoe is a magical, mysterious and sacred plant in European folklore and has long been a symbol of love, peace and goodwill. Traditions with mistletoe date back to ancient times.
It also holds a place near and dear to the hearts of Oklahomans as it is one of our state’s official flowers and was adopted in 1893, 14 years before Oklahoma was a state. It is particularly bountiful in the southern regions of the state. Today, mistletoe is Oklahoma’s state floral emblem.
Something interesting botanically about mistletoe is that it’s a partial parasite, or hemiparasite. As a parasitic plant, it grows on the branches or trunk of a tree and actually sends out roots that penetrate into the tree and take up nutrients. However, mistletoe also is capable of growing on its own. Like other plants, it can produce its own food by photosynthesis, but is more commonly found growing as a parasitic plant.
There are two types of mistletoe – the one commonly used as a Christmas decoration (Phoradenron flavescens), and Viscum album. The Christmas decoration variety is native to North America, while Viscum album is of European origin. Viscum album is commonly found on apple trees, but rarely on oak trees.
From the earliest times, mistletoe was considered to bestow life and fertility, serve as a protection against poison and even has been considered an aphrodisiac. Kissing under the mistletoe was first associated with the Greek festival of Saturnalia and later with primitive marriage rites. In Scandinavia, mistletoe was considered a plant of peace, under which enemies could declare a truce, or fighting couples could kiss and make up.
Later in the 18th century, it became known as a “kissing ball.” The story goes that at Christmas time, a young lady standing under a ball of mistletoe, brightly trimmed with evergreens, ribbons and ornaments, can’t refuse to be kissed. Such a kiss could mean deep romance or lasting friendship and good will. If the girl remained unkissed, she could not expect to marry the following year. Whether we believe these stories or not, it always makes for fun at Christmas celebrations.
David Hillock is a consumer horticulturalist with Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension.