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The mysteries of mistletoe

Jim and Lynne Weber

From the earliest times mistletoe has been considered one of the most magical, mysterious and sacred plants found in European folklore.

Originally used in medieval times to bestow life and fertility — as a protection from poison and as an aphrodisiac — branches of mistletoe were hung from the ceiling to ward off evil spirits. With the process of immigration and settlement of North America, the traditions associated with the European plant were transferred to the New World and evolved into a folklore all their own.

In Central Texas, two species of mistletoe are native, the Christmas mistletoe (Phoradendron tomentosum) and aak mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum). The genus comes from the Greek "phor," which means "thief," and "dendron," which means "tree," as both species are semiparasites that steal water and nutrients from their host trees.

Christmas mistletoe has small, elliptical evergreen leaves and smooth green stems covered by short hairs, with tiny green flowers on the male plant and shiny white berries on the female plant. It is widely used in the United States as a Christmas decoration, and is especially common growing on sugar hackberry, cedar elm, and honey mesquite trees in Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma.

Native north to New York State, south to Florida, and west to New Mexico, oak mistletoe is another common mistletoe hung at Christmastime. It is a larval host plant for the great purple hairstreak butterfly, and while similar in appearance to Christmas mistletoe, its berries are covered with a sticky substance poisonous to humans but relished by winter resident birds such as cedar waxwings, Eastern bluebirds and American robins. These birds eat the berries and spread the seeds through their droppings and by wiping their beaks on tree branches, both of which might cause a new plant to take hold and become established on a host tree.

While ancient folklore has attributed a wide range of mystical abilities to mistletoe, none is more fascinating than the myth of Frigga, the Norse Mother Goddess worshiped by pre-Christian people of Northern Europe, and how mistletoe became her sacred plant. She was believed to be the mother of Balder, the God of the Summer Sun, who had a dream of death. Alarmed by this dream, Frigga went to all the elements, plants and animals to seek a promise that no harm would come to her son. With that promise, Balder was thought to be safe from harm by anything on or under the Earth.

But Balder's enemy, Loki, was the God of Evil, and he knew of the one plant that Frigga overlooked. It was the lowly mistletoe, which grew neither on nor under the Earth itself, but on the branches of oaks and other trees. Loki made an arrow tip with the mistletoe and gave it to Hoder, the blind God of winter, who used it to strike Balder dead. At that moment the sky paled and everything wept for the Sun God, who was then restored by Frigga after working with the elements for three days.

The tears she shed for her son were said to be the pearly white berries of the mistletoe and in her joy at his resurrection she kissed everyone who passed beneath the tree on which it grew.

Thus began the custom that whoever should stand beneath the humble mistletoe will come to no harm and receive only a kiss as a token of love. Merry mistletoe to you and yours!

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