Have you ever wondered where the tradition of hanging mistletoe at Christmas came from? It seems that mistletoe became a Christmas legend—and staple in decorating—because it stays green all winter, just like evergreen trees.
Mistletoe found a renewed popularity in Victorian Christmas celebrations, where other evergreen items—holly leaves, and ivy, for example—were used in decorations. Those planning a Victorian Christmas would use this greenery to make wreaths and for hanging from door frames as decorations—thus the tradition of hanging Christmas mistletoe was born.
The kissing part became popular at around the same time as the Victorian period got underway—give or take a decade or two—and supposedly went like this: each time a couple kissed under a mistletoe sprig, they removed one of the white berries. (Mistletoe kissing is supposed to be a precursor to romance or marriage.) When the berries were all gone, so was the mistletoe's kissing power. Funny thing is: oftentimes when you see drawings or images of people kissing under mistletoe, the berries are always red. Whatever happened to the white berries?
A Christmas legend aside I recently discovered, thanks to the National Wildlife Federation, that mistletoe, as a plant, plays an important part as a native plant and with native wildlife. Here are some of the heretofore, non-Christmas mistletoe facts I recently learned and wanted to share with you:
- There are 1,300 mistletoe species worldwide. The continental United States and Canada are home to more than 30 species, and Hawaii harbors another six.
- All mistletoe grows as parasites on the branches of trees and shrubs. (No wonder the Victorian Christmas celebrations included mistletoe and ivy—I know that my trees and shrubs are often over taken by ivy, what I consider to be a parasitic plant in my own yard. But I digress.)
- As they mature, mistletoes grow into thick, often rounded masses of branches and stems, until they look like baskets, sometimes called "witches' brooms."
- Ancient Anglo-Saxons noticed that mistletoe often grows where birds leave droppings, which is how mistletoe got its name: In Anglo-Saxon, "mistel" means "dung" and "tan" means "twig," hence, "dung-on-a-twig." (Not sure how "tan" because "toe" but there you have it.)
- Speaking of birds this "witches' broom" provides a nesting place for various of birds, including house wrens, chickadees, mourning doves, and pygmy nuthatches. Researchers found that 43 percent of spotted owl nests in one forest were associated with witches' brooms, and that 64 percent of all Cooper's hawk nests in northeastern Oregon were in mistletoe. Several tree squirrel species also nest in witches' brooms.
- Some butterflies in the United States depend on mistletoe for survival. These butterflies lay eggs on mistletoe, and their young eat the leaves. The adults feed on mistletoe nectar, as do some species of native bees.
- The mistletoe's white berries are toxic to humans but are favored during autumn and winter—when other foods are scarce—by mammals ranging from deer and elk to squirrels, chipmunks and porcupines. Many bird species, such as robins, chickadees, bluebirds and mourning doves, also eat the berries. (Here are some ideas for keeping wildlife out of your garbage, in case there is no mistletoe around to sustain them.)
Bottom line: once Christmas is over, and when the spring planting season arrives, you could make your yard more hospitable to wildlife with mistletoe, thus turning your backyard landscape into a wildlife habitat.