Frank Landis' Blog

Kissing under the Mistletoe

Why do we kiss under the mistletoe anyway? Following the normal procedure (Googling) I read a bit and found a reference to it being a symbol of peace in Scandinavia, linking it to the legend of Baldur’s death. And then there’s the obligatory reference to druid’s cutting down mistletoe from a mistle-oak on the SUMMER solstice with a golden sickle, and…

Right. Actually, all you have to do is actually look at a fruiting mistletoe to realize the answer is a lot more graphic. But I’ll get to that in a bit. Since mistletoes were one of my late grandmother’s favorite plants and it is the season for harvesting the darlings, I thought I’d add a bit to the mistletoe lore.

To us botanists, mistletoes are a group of hemi-parasitic plants in the order Santalales. Yes, Santa has something to do with mistletoe…not really. To unpack that statement: a parasite is something that gains nutrients from a host, to the host’s detriment. Parasites come in two flavors: holo-parasites that get everything from its host, and hemi-parasites that get some of its nutrients from outside their hosts. Parasites don’t generally read, so reality is a lot more messy than that, as anyone who hosts a financial holoparasite knows. But I digress. The order Santalales has nothing to do with Santa either, sadly. It is named after the sandalwood genus Santalum. American mistletoes used to be in their own family, Viscaceae, but if you follow the current APG system, they are also grouped in the Santalaceae. So if you can think of Santa smelling like sandalwood and holding a mistletoe, then you’ve got something to remember this whole group by.

According to the San Diego Plant Atlas, San Diego County hosts two genera and nine species of mistletoes, none of which are the European mistletoe (Viscum album) of legend, lore, and Victorian-era coverups. The two genera are Arceuthobium and Phoradendron. Despite what I just said, Arceuthobiums, commonly known as dwarf mistletoes, are holoparasites. How do you tell? They’re not green. Hemiparasitic mistletoes are green and photosynthesize. Dwarf mistletoes attack conifers, and you can identify them based on the identity of the host tree. Phoradendron mistletoes are green, and of the seven species, the ones you tend to see in the city’s canyons are P. macrophyllum on sycamores among other non-oak trees, and P. villosum primarily on oaks. Winter is a great time to look for mistletoes, especially in the sycamores, because there aren’t any leaves to block your view of the mistletoes in the crowns.

So let’s get folkloric. You can read all about the druids and the Norse elsewhere (see link above). All of these people seem to repeat the same stuff from the old stories, so I’ll add a couple more tidbits. For instance, the symbolism of cutting mistletoe from an oak with a golden sickle at mid-summer. As explained by a modern druid, the sickle is a moon symbol, gold is for the sun, the mistletoe is a weird plant that grows in the air (spirit) not the ground (reality), the summer solstice is the time of maximum daylight, after which the daylight decreases, and English mistletoe rarely grows on oaks, so finding one on an oak is a rare event. All nice and symbolic, except that the druids probably used a falx, which is more like a bill-hook. Another modern druid actually made a couple of golden sickles out of 9 carat gold and found that yes, you can cut mistletoe with it. You get about two sprigs before the golden blade breaks. Feel free to replicate the experiment. I can tell you from experience that local mistletoe wood is quite brittle.

But kissing under the mistletoe… Yes, yes. It’s a pretty poisonous plant, but we’ll ignore that. That’s not why you stick it up. Look instead at mistletoe biology. Mistletoe berries are spread by birds that eat the berries. To help the seeds get crapped out on branches rather than the ground, mistletoe berries are very sticky. Birds wipe their butts on branches to get them out, and voila! the seed has a new host to grow into. So we’re talking about a seed that’s off-white, like a little pearl of something sticky, and it rather resembles some other droplet that’s off-white and rather sticky. You can start thinking about sexual symbolism here. In the old days, boys used to pull a berry off the mistletoe each time they kissed a girl under it, too. They may have been counting uses, or they may have been hoping for something else after the kiss. Hard to tell.

And if you look at the fruiting branch of a mistletoe, you’ll see that it’s a rather stiff, upright little branch that’s quite thick in proportion to its height. The berries are paired on either side of it, and typically, the last two berries are the one at the base of the nice straight bare stem. Yes, it’s about the most blatantly phallic symbol you can find in the local flora, and we’re really talking about a little fertility ritual here. So ignore the hemi-parasitism, ignore the Santa order stuff, and ignore the whole story of Baldur. Just have fun smooching under the mistletoe!