Mistletoe Tradition and History

Having originated in Europe, mistletoe never ceased to fascinate the ancient Greeks and Gauls, who considered it to be a symbol of long life and prosperity. Easily identifiable in winter, when branches are bare, mistletoe is actually an obligate parasite, meaning that it can't survive without the tree on which it grows. The growth of the mistletoe exhausts a tree so much that the branches upon which the mistletoe grows must be removed. Once cut, the beautiful white mistletoe berries make a very nice end-of-year decoration, under which custom says couples, new or old, or even newly met strangers should kiss at New Year.

Legends at the Origins of Mistletoe Traditions and Customs

In Ancient Greece, mistletoe was linked to Hermes, the Messenger of the Olympus and God of health. Some Serbian and Scandinavian legends also attribute magical properties to their light green-white berries, while French tradition says that branches of mistletoe placed on a table will ensure an abundant harvest. Mistletoe is also called in some regions "wood of the Holy Cross", which implies that it would have been used to make the cross of Christ before becoming a sad parasite.

Some Lovely Misteltoe Pictures and Clipart

Picture of mistletoe with berries
Picture of Mistletoe with its beautifully decorative berries

Mistletoe Clip Art
Mistletoe Clip Art

Mistletoe Picture
Mistletoe Picture

But the richest legends concerning mistletoe come to us from the Gauls who considered it a sacred plant. The Druids attributed miraculous virtues in the plant, capable not only of curing some diseases, but also of immunising against poisons, combatting interfility and protecting against sorcery. During the sixth night of the winter solstice, a druid dressed in white was made responsible for picking the sacred mistletoe from the oak tree with a gold billhook. He would place it a sheet of white flax whilst saying in Celtic "O Ghel an Heu", which literally means "that the wheat germinates".

History also tells that enemies who crossed under mistletoe berries had to observe a one day truce before resuming the battle. From those origins it's quite certain that the custom of kissing under mistletoe suspended from the ceiling as a sign of friendship arose.

Mistletoe finds a symbolic meaning in Germanic mythology. Odin, king of the Gods, and his wife, Frigg had a beautiful son called Balder. Frigg discovered that Balder was having terrible dreams foreseeing his own death. Fearing for her son, Frigg had all elements of the earth swear that they would not harm Balder....all elements that is except one particular thing...Frigg had not asked the mistletoe because she had considered it to be too young, small and insignificant.

After Frigg had obtained the oath from the elements not to harm Balder, the Gods amused themselves, testing his invulnerability by throwing various objects at him . Everything would bounce off, leaving Balder completely unharmed.

The mischievous God Loki , disguised as an old lady, visited Frigg however, and found out from her about he fact that she had not got the mistletoe to swear the oath.

Loki created a spear from a sprig of mistletoe, and convinced Balder's blind brother Hödr to throw the sprig at Balder, to join in with the other Gods at testing Baldur's invincibility. Balder threw, thinking that the sprig would harmlessly bounce off Baldur like everything else was apparently doing, but the mistletoe killed Baldur. It was Balder's "Achilles' heel", because all other elements of the Earth had sworn to do nothing to harm the beautiful, young God, yet the mistletoe had not taken the oath.

Other Anglo-Saxon legends exist, but apartt from the story of Baldur, the mistletoe is normally associated in these legends with happiness, prosperity, fruitfulness, fertility and long life.

The Mistletoe Plant and Botany

Mistletoe is a small hemiparasitic tree shrub. In other words, it steals wter and mineral salts from its host, but can produce its own chlorophyll and sugars. It follows the growth of the bark by moving its suction organ back every year, thus enabling it to suck the sap on which it feeds, up to the final dieback of the shaft. These big shrubs of 50cm diameter, which are spotted from far away in winter, have a persistent foliage. The simple and rounded, leaves arranged in pairs, are very decorative. The fruits, of a viscous white colur, are at the origin of the Latin name of one particular species of the the plant, Viscum album, the European or Common Mistletoe. A very resistant glue was made in the past, known as bird lime. Birds are very fond of the berries and are responsible for the spread of mistletoe from tree to tree.


Mistletoe is a parasite which impoverishes the tree on which it grows by sucking its sap. It particularly likes apple trees, poplars, limes, pear trees and hazels, but never attaches itself to beech trees and plane trees. The presence of mistletoe on oaks is very rare, which made it even more precious in the eyes of ancient Druids. There are no effective chemicals to protect a tree against mistletoe, and the only means to combat its blight is to cut the entire branch sufficiently far from the point of attachment to avoid a regrowth. Prevention against mistletoe today occurs by selecting resistant cultivars.

Medicinal Uses

In the past, mistletoe was used by herbalists to treat on epilepsy, nervous problems and whooping cough. Toxic in high doses, mistletoe is the subject today of scientific researches which are trying to demonstrate its beneficial effects on the immune system and in the fight against hypertension. Recent researches could highlight the capacity of the ability of mistletoe to inhibit cancerous tumours...maybe the Druids were correct after all!

Mistletoe as Decoration

Branches of mistletoe make beautiful New Year and Christmas decorations, which keep for a long time, provided the stems are soaked in a vase of water.

Tools to pick Mistletoe

In the absence of a gold billhook, a good pair of secateurs will enable you to easily pick sprigs of mistletoe.

Based on a feature by the garden prince

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