Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Herb of the Week - Mistletoe

North American mistletoe (Phoradendron tomentosum) does not belong to the same genus as the European mistletoe, but the legends and lore of the European plant long ago made their way to America.  In fact, this evergreen herb that seems to miraculously grow in trees has spread its magic across many different cultures.  You cannot cook or make medicines with mistletoe but the customs that surround it are interesting to share.

So this week's HERB-OF-THE-WEEK is Mistletoe!

Mistletoe is the common name for a group of semi-parasitic plants in the order of Santales that grow attached to and within the branches of a tree or shrub. The name was originally applied to Viscum album (European Mistletoe), the only species native in much of Europe. Later the name was further extended to other related species, including  Phoradendron serotinum (the Eastern Mistletoe of eastern North America).  European mistletoe is readily recognized by its smooth-edged oval evergreen leaves born in pairs along the woody stem, and waxy white berries in dense clusters of 2 to 6. In America, the Eastern Mistletoe is similar, but has shorter, broader leaves and longer clusters of 10 or more berries.
Viscum album is a poisonous plant that causes acute gastrointestinal problems including stomach pain, although it has a history of increasing sex drive and curing forms of cancer it is not considered a plant to eat or use to treat any ills.
The Name & Symbolism
The word 'mistletoe' (Old English mistiltan) is of uncertain etymology; it may be related to German Mist, for dung and Tang for branch, since mistletoe can be spread in the feces of birds moving from tree to tree. However, Old English mistel was also used for basil.
So Washington Irving, in "Christmas Eve," relates the typical festivities surrounding the Twelve Days of Christmas, including kissing under the mistletoe (Washington Irving, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent). Irving continues his Christmas passage with a footnote:
"The mistletoe is still hung up in farm-houses and kitchens at Christmas, and the young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under it, plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked the privilege ceases."
We more recent users of Mistletoe have conveniently forgotten the part about plucking the berries (which, incidentally, are poisonous), and then desisting from kissing under the mistletoe when the berries run out!
Along with Christmas Holly, bay laurel, rosemary, yews, boxwood bushes and of course, the Christmas Tree, mistletoe is an evergreen displayed during the Christmas season and symbolic of the eventual rebirth of vegetation that will occur in spring.
Kissing under the Mistletoe
Most people do not even realize that mistletoe does not grow on the ground, but rather on trees as a parasitic shrub. As such it tends to grow high off the ground in among the branches of other trees (making easier to pass UNDER!)  That's right: as unromantic as it sounds, kissing under the mistletoe means embracing under a parasite....
The variety common in Europe was imbued with religious significance by its ancient denizens. We find the source of "kissing under the mistletoe" in Celtic rituals and Norse mythology. In Gaul, the land of the Celts, for instance, the Druids considered it a sacred plant. It was believed to have medicinal qualities and mysterious supernatural powers.
Baldur, the Norse God of living plants, is believed to be the key to the history of mistletoe as a "kissing" plant.
Baldur's mother was the Norse goddess, Frigga. When Baldur was born, Frigga made each and every plant, animal and inanimate object promise not to harm Baldur. But Frigga overlooked the mistletoe plant -- and the mischievous god of the Norse myths, Loki, took advantage of this oversight. Ever the prankster, Loki tricked one of the other gods into killing Baldur with a spear fashioned from mistletoe. The demise of Baldur, a vegetation deity in the Norse myths, brought winter into the world, although the gods did eventually restore Baldur to life. After which Frigga pronounced the mistletoe sacred, ordering that from now on it should bring love rather than death into the world. Happily complying with Frigga's wishes, any two people passing under the plant from now on would celebrate Baldur's resurrection by kissing under the mistletoe.
May your holiday be filled with kisses!
Marcy Lautanen-Raleigh

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