SAN ANGELO, Texas — A popular Christmas tradition evolves around mistletoe but there are a few facts about the festive plant some may not know.
Despite having such a romantic reputation during the holidays the plant itself is much darker – bunches of mistletoes are called “witches brooms” and the white berries are toxic to humans according to the National Wildlife Federation. Mistletoe also grows as parasites on the branches of trees and shrubs.
The plant’s name also isn’t very glamourous having derived it from the Anglo-Saxons when they noticed that mistletoe often grows where birds leave droppings: In Anglo-Saxon, “mistel” means “dung” and “tan” means “twig,” hence, “dung-on-a-twig.”
Every Christmas season, the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe continues, but today it’s more likely folks are kissing under holly. The biggest difference between the two plants is that holly is an evergreen shrub or tree with bright red berries and spiked leaves and mistletoe is a seed plant/parasite that lives attached to a tree with white berries and smooth leaves. This is a common misconception during the holidays that some blame on plant-blindness – (a human tendency to ignore plant species.) and over-consumerism.
Although not as common, the USDA says that hardwood true mistletoes can range in color from white, pink, or red in October through January depending on the species.
Mistletoe first became associated with Christmas from the tradition of hanging mistletoe in one’s home to bring good luck and peace to those within the house. According to the National Wildlife Federation, the custom of kissing under the mistletoe dates back to the 1500s in Europe when Christianity became widespread. In the United States, it was practiced after Washington Irving wrote it in “Christmas Eve,” from his 1820 collection of essays and stories, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. The tradition was that each time a couple kissed, they would remove one berry until they were all gone.