Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Mistletoe: Facts and Traditions

Jesse Fulbright, MSU Liberty County Extension

Society has deemed mistletoe to be that awkward plant that we hang in our homes during the Christmas season.  While I don’t see mistletoe around in many homes these days, it still is important to know a little bit about what things we may potentially bring into our homes.

Photo courtesy of Michigan State
University Extension.
According to an Iowa State University Extension source, mistletoe is a semi-parasitic plant with leathery, evergreen leaves and small, white berries.  Mistletoe plants manufacture their own food, but obtain water and mineral nutrients from a host plant.  Host plants include numerous deciduous and evergreen trees.  Mistletoe berries are readily eaten by birds.  The birds digest the pulp of the berries and excrete the seeds.  The sticky seeds stick to the branches of trees.  
American mistletoe can be found growing in deciduous trees from New Jersey and southern Indiana southward to Florida and Texas.  Mistletoe sold during the holiday season is gathered in the wild and most mistletoe is harvested in Oklahoma and Texas. 

Traditions involving mistletoe date back to ancient times.  Druids believed that mistletoe could bestow health and good luck.  Welsh farmers associated mistletoe with fertility.  A good mistletoe crop foretold a good crop the following season.  Mistletoe was also thought to influence human fertility and was prescribed to individuals who had problems bearing children.  It has been used in medicine, as treatment for pleurisy, gout, epilepsy, rabies and poisoning.  In addition, mistletoe played a role in a superstition concerning marriage.  It was believed that kissing under the mistletoe increased the possibility of marriage in the upcoming year.  Today, kissing under the mistletoe is a sign of goodwill, friendship or love. 
Mistletoe should be kept out of the reach of small children and family pets, as the berries are poisonous.  Only in rare cases has eating the berries been reported to harm children, and then usually in large doses.  According to the Pet Poison Helpline, when accidentally ingested by pets, mistletoe poisoning can result in mild signs of gastrointestinal irritation (e.g., drooling, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain).  When ingested in large amounts, abnormal heart rate, collapse, hypotension (low blood pressure), ataxia (walking drunk), seizures and death have also been reported.  The moral of the story is then, if you bring mistletoe into your homes, please be aware of where you place it, especially if intertwined with other decorations at lower heights.

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