It is extremely bad luck to cut down a tree that hosts mistletoe. One such oak was felled in Norwood, England, in 1657. The three perpetrators sold the mistletoe to an apothecary in London. One fell lame, another lost an eye and the last broke a leg.

Viscum album, a semi-parasitic plant living on trees, is spread by seeds that birds have eaten. Its common name derives from the Anglo Saxon “mistel” – dung, and “tan” – twig.

In pre-Christian Europe, it was associated with romance and male virility. Pliny wrote that the Druids “esteem nothing more sacred than the mistletoe.” They believed it possessed powers to heal and protect.

It’s one of the many plants and trees said to have been used for the Cross. Ever after, it was doomed to depend on other plants for survival.

Though highly toxic, it has been used in traditional medicine to treat varicose veins and leg ulcers. Native Americans used mistletoe in steam baths and in infusions to treat numbness and painful limbs and joints. Standardized extracts are now used to treat certain cancers.

The leafy twigs, toxic in volume, can serve as a heart tonic, reduce blood pressure, slow heart rate, strengthen capillary walls and stimulate the immune system.

In Switzerland, “donnerbesen,” or thunder besom, being of divine origin, was supposed to protect the home from fire and thus was suspended from the rafters as a lightning charm. The fact that the stem is forked reinforced this belief.

It also had powers to prevent nightmares. Tyroleans believed mistletoe could render the bearer invisible.

Common to us as a Christmas decoration, in England it was excluded from festive décor by the church because of its associations with Druidic rites. Kissing beneath the mistletoe echoes its ancient fertility symbolism.

If a couple shared a kiss under it, it signaled their intention to marry. With each kiss, a berry was removed. When all berries were gone, no further kissing was allowed. Any woman who was not kissed would remain unkissed for the entire coming year.

Harsh.

I leave you with Mary Darby Robinson’s poem, “The Mistletoe:”

“This mistletoe was doom’d to be

The talisman of Destiny;

Beneath its ample bough we’re told

Full many a timid Swain grew bold;

Full many a roguish eye askance

Beheld it with impatient glance,

And many a ruddy check confest,

The triumphs of the beating breast;

And many a rustic rover sigh’d

Who ask’d the kiss, and was denied.”

Here’s hoping you won’t be denied.

– A reference librarian, Lisa Karen Miller has been gardening and researching plant lore for many years. Have plant lore to share? Email lisalisa13131313@gmail.com.

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