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"Ho, Ho, the Mistletoe!"

St. Paul, Minn. (December 17, 2002)—Kissing under the mistletoe might seem like a quaint and outdated tradition, but don’t underestimate the powers of this parasitic plant. Mistletoe has been used, worshiped, and revered throughout history and across cultures, from the Greeks to the Native Americans. Even today, there is much to be learned from this ancient plant.

"What’s striking about the history of mistletoe is that no other plant—ever—throughout the history of mankind, has had the same hold on the human imagination,” states Frank H. Tainter, a plant pathologist and professor emeritus at Clemson University. “Mention mistletoe and most people think of the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe at Christmas time. But this barely touches upon what mistletoe has meant to humans throughout time.”

What Tainter is referring to is the amazing amount of historical literature documenting thousands of years of mistletoe related worship and ritual beginning with the ancient Celts who believed that mistletoe had mystical properties. This belief was largely due to the fact that mistletoe grew on the oak tree (already revered by the Celts) and appeared to flourish in winter despite the cold temperatures and lack of sunlight. Similarly, the Greeks believed that mistletoe was protected in some mystical sense from injury or harm and if cut from the oak its healing powers could be channeled.

In fact, from the Middle Ages to the last century, the literature is filled with examples of different uses for mistletoe plants. It was hung in front of cottages to scare away passing demons and over stable doors to protect horses and cattle. In Sweden, it was kept in houses to prevent fire and in Italy was believed to be able to extinguish fire. It was widely held to be a universal healer and a fertility potion. Native American tribes of the southwest used it medicinally, as did the Greeks who used it to cure epilepsy and to promote conception. It was believed to heal ulcers if chewed and in Wales was thought to induce prophetic dreams if placed under a pillow.

“Because they were more dependent on natural cycles, our ancestors closely observed the changing seasons and appreciated the behavior of plants and animals in a way that not only helped sustain them, but also gave meaning to their lives and their daily routines,” says Tainter.

“We may no longer believe in the special powers of mistletoe, but knowing its history and keeping some of these rituals can remind us of our connection to nature, both physically and spiritually.”

Happy Holidays from the plant pathologists at the American Phytopathological Society. A full article on the history and biology of the Mistletoe plant is the subject of this month’s feature story and can be found at The American Phytopathological Society (APS) is a professional scientific organization dedicated to the study and control of plant disease with 5,000 members worldwide.