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Mistletoe's lengthy history

Credit: Jennifer Rotenizer/Winston-Salem Journal

Mistletoe resembles an evergreen shrub growing among the tree branches.

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Mistletoe is a weird little plant that has inspired mythology for centuries.

In Norse mythology, Frigg, the goddess of love and beauty, was the mother of the god Baldr. Frigg asked all living creatures to swear an oath never to harm Baldr after he had a series of visionary dreams. Baldr was protected from all harm, rendered invincible except for one plant: mistletoe. Frigg thought it was too small and innocent to do him any harm. Loki, the trickster god, fashioned a spear of mistletoe that proved to be Baldr's demise.

The golden bough from Virgil's "Aeneid" is believed to be mistletoe. The golden bough accompanied and protected Aeneas, the hero of the Trojan War, on his journey into Hades to seek counsel with his dead father, Anchises.

The Druids also placed mistletoe among their sacred plants. Legend has it that the Druids cut mistletoe with a golden sickle on the ninth day of moon. They considered an oak tree with mistletoe growing in it as designated by the gods. The plant was caught in a white cloth before touching the ground, and a great feast then ensued.

Mistletoe does not touch the ground during its life span. It is a hemi-parasite — a plant that conducts some of its own energy through photosynthesis but also preys on a host plant. Mistletoe generally causes little harm to the entire tree, though the branch it attaches too can be harmed. In some cases where a tree is unhealthy, mistletoe can kill it.

Mistletoe's life in the canopy begins when a bird drops the sticky seed through its waste onto a branch or twig.

Upon germinating, the seed sends forth a root-like structure called a hausatoria, which burrows its way into a bud on a twig. This structure sucks sap out of the tree. The tree typically develops a swollen area where the intrusion has been made.

Mistletoe may go unnoticed during the growing season when its preferred host, deciduous trees, are covered with leaves. In the fall, yellow-green masses are visible high in the canopy. Mistletoe resembles an evergreen shrub growing among the tree branches.

The mistletoe of Dickens and Christmases past is the species Viscum album. Our Eastern mistletoe is a Phoradendron species and is found from New Jersey to Florida and Texas. There are 1,400 species of mistletoe in the world.

For those of you just wishing to steal a holiday smooch, proper protocol for puckering under the mistletoe says that one must remove a berry for each kiss under the bough. When all the berries are gone, the kissing must cease.

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