Mistletoe Is a Poisonous Parasite ... of Love?

The pretty green sprig of mistletoe you stand beneath to kiss your sweetie is actually a poisonous parasite that survives by sucking the life essence from its host. How romantic!

What Mistletoe Is, Really

Mistletoe grows on the branches of trees, where it survives by taking water and soil minerals the tree needs to, you know, live. Of course, if the tree dies, the mistletoe dies with it, so it's in the parasite's best interest to only take what it needs.

There are more than 1,500 species of mistletoe throughout the world, and many are toxic, particularly those found in North America. Still, it's not all bad. Birds are known to eat the berries, and two studies found that when scientists removed mistletoe from trees in an area, the bird population suffered.

How the Strange Tradition Began

Like many traditions, this one is pretty old, and as a result, its origins are murky. The plant stays green all winter long, which seems to be at the root of most mistletoe-based traditions; any plant that stays green while the vegetation around it withers and dies must have magical powers, right? (Actually, it's because it leeches nutrients from the tree it has invaded. Merry Christmas!)

Many ancient cultures used mistletoe as a medicinal herb. The Greeks and Romans were known to prescribe it for everything from menstrual cramps to epilepsy, and Celtic Druids would use it to restore fertility. (It's even being used today in cancer therapy.) In Norse mythology, mistletoe was used on an arrow as a sort of Norse Kryptonite to kill the invincible god Baldur. Whether it came from the magic, the mythology, or the gross fact that the berries of some plants secrete a semen-like substance, by the 18th century, it had become a holiday decoration associated with kissing.

According to History, the custom of men stealing a kiss from women standing under the mistletoe first caught on among English servants before spreading to the higher classes. As part of some early traditions, you had to pluck a berry from the mistletoe with each kiss. No more berries? No more kisses.

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Written by Ashley Hamer December 21, 2016

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