Of death and lovers’ kisses

Published 8:57 pm Tuesday, December 22, 2015

By Susan and Biff Andrews

Mistletoes are parasitic plants that attach to the bark or branches of host trees. They have smooth oval leaves and waxy white berries — about 10 per sprig in our area. The Eastern mistletoe native to our area is Phoradendron flavescens, a genus of the Santalaceae family. It is found from New Jersey to Florida.

Mistletoes grow on a variety of host trees. They slowly kill the branches they grow on, and may eventually kill the entire tree.

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Seeds are spread by small birds. The bird eats the berries, then poops on another branch or tree, and it sticks due to a substance called viscin in the berry. It sticks, it attaches, it grows, and then it starts drawing all its moisture and nutrients from its host. Thus the ensuing death of the branch or tree.

The name mistletoe derives from two Anglo Saxon words — “mistel” (meaning “dung”) and “tan” (meaning “stick”). Poo on a stick — how romantic.

While mistletoe is poisonous to humans, birds feed on it, butterflies lay their eggs on it and sip its nectar, and bees spread the pollen.

Mistletoe has long been associated with winter worship, even before Christianity — by Druid and Norse and Greek cultures. Lovers are expected to kiss under it. This tradition took especially strong root in Britain.

By the 18th century, any woman standing under a sprig of mistletoe could be kissed. If she refused, she would endure bad luck for the year. Later, each time a kiss was taken under the mistletoe, one berry was plucked. When the berries were all gone, no more kisses.

So there it is — love or death? Poo on a stick or guaranteed love and kisses?

Go into the Dismal Swamp and look for it. But be sure to walk with someone you wouldn’t mind kissing!

Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at b.andrews22@live.com.