Christmas is getting closer and bunches of mistletoe again adorn doorways. The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe is one that originated with the Druids. A white berry-like fruit is removed after each kiss. When all are gone kissing is no longer allowed.
One legend states that a couple who kisses underneath mistletoe will have good luck, but a couple that doesn’t will have bad luck. Kissing under the mistletoe supposedly ensures a long marriage and fulfilling life. Legend also states that an unmarried woman not kissed under the mistletoe will remain single for another year.
Kissing under the mistletoe is fine, but eating any part of the plant, especially the fruit is not. In general, avoid any plant with white berries. Poison ivy, oak, and sumac are prime examples.
Mistletoe fruits technically are not berries. They are drupes, like cherries or peaches, since they contain only one seed. That doesn’t change their toxicity. They contain a poison called phoratoxin, which can cause blurred vision, nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhea, hypotension, and even death.
Some people hear that mistletoe lowers blood pressure and they think that they can self-medicate themselves with just a few fruits. It’s not that simple. Don’t let the lower blood pressure symptom convince you to try some.
Studies vary and some people show no toxicity symptoms other than an upset stomach, but it’s crazy to eat things well documented to be toxic in moderate or lower levels. Keep it away from children, since all plant parts are toxic.
Several commercial extracts contain mistletoe. I strongly suggest consulting your doctor before using them. They could interfere with medication.
Cancer and arthritis research on mistletoe is ongoing. Much of this has been in Europe and with the European mistletoe. American types have not been studied as extensively.
Mistletoe is a unique parasitic plant. It’s what we call a hemi parasite, because it produces much of its own food through photosynthesis. It also taps the tree for all its mineral nutrition, and large infestations can severely weaken a tree.
Successful parasites do not kill their hosts, and mistletoe alone rarely kills trees. It does make them more susceptible to other problems. Eventually the tree will probably die prematurely.
Observant folks might notice that not all mistletoe plants possess fruits. Entire plants are either male or female. They form on trees when a single seed is deposited on a branch. Usually this is accomplished through bird droppings.
The name mistletoe comes from two Anglo-Saxon words which translate to ‘dung twig.’ In earlier days people thought it was the birds themselves and not the seeds they dropped that caused mistletoe.
These sticky seeds send out roots that penetrate bark and then wood of the tree. Over time they weaken the branch and often limbs break.
Mistletoe can be pretty, especially in winter, but I suggest removing plants from your trees if possible. The best time to notice you have a problem is when the leaves fall, so pull it off your trees and stick it above your door.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.