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Mistletoe- What Is It And A Little History

By Helen Wand

Of course we all know this plant traditional used at Christmas for kissing under! But what is it and where does it come from? Mistletoe is a very unusual, semi-parasitic, evergreen plant, which obtains part of it's food, water and minerals, from the tree that it lives on, using a special organ which replaces a conventional root. It obtains the rest of the nutritients it requires, using it's yellow-green leaves, and photosynthesis, to produce starch from sun light. Throughout the world, there are perhaps as many as 400 different species. In fact, I have come across one American acaedemic who has so far described 200 species, during his travels all over the world, and he's still going!

The species common to England is Viscum album and commonly grows on apple, limes, sycamore, hybrid black poplar, and rarely on common oak trees. The English species causes very little damage to the host tree, unlike those common to North America, and others in In England, mistletoe is propagated by birds, usually blackbirds or thrushes, eating the sticky white berries and depositing the seeds on a new host. A great many people have tried to propagate mistletoe, by collecting their own seed and planting it on a suitable host tree, but to my knowledge, with little or no success. No doubt there is something, either in the birds digestive system, or the fertiliser from their droppings, that triggers germination.

Incidentally, the name mistletoe is thought to come from the Missel Thrush, a type of English garden bird, now not so common as it once was. The mistletoe plant has been around for a very long time. The ancient Greeks believed it had mystical powers. The Druids held any missletoe which grew on oaks with a special reverence, seperating it from the tree in a ceremony using a golden knife. They believed it had great powers to protect them from evil, as well as miraculously having great cureative powers. In the middle ages it was hung over over house doors to keep out witches. It was thought to be able to extinguish fire, and some farmers were even said to give the Christmas bunch of mistletoe to the first cow that calved in the New Year. Though I'm not sure whether the cow was given it to eat, or just decorated with it!

Over the years, mistletoe has been thought to be very effective to treat many disorders, from epilepsy to sterility. Indeed, it is still used by homoeopaths today in the treatment of many nervous disorders, often combined with valerian and vervain. But like a great many plants, whilst they may have medicinal properties, but they can also be toxic. So take care and don't let your kids eat the berries! But why do we still continue to use mistletoe to decorate our houses at New Year, and to kiss under?

Perhaps the belief of the powers of mistletoe was so deep seated in our ancestors, that we still retain a little of that today, without knowing why. We still believe it brings good luck and happiness. And anyway what harm can it do?







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