All I knew of Mistletoe was that you kiss under it at Christmastime. I was surprised to hear that it grew wild in the South. I was also surprised to hear that it grew on trees. Mistletoe is not a tree, but a parasitic shrub that grows out of the branches of existing trees like oaks. I began to look up and around, and sure enough, there it was all around me, high up in the trees of my own yard.
At a quick glance you might assume it is a squirrel's nest left over from the summer. But with a longer look and a closer inspection you will notice that it is not a mass of brown dead leaves, but green, like strange and untimely new growth on an otherwise dormant and barren tree.
The boys and I decided we would try to harvest some for ourselves. Apparently, the preferred way to harvest mistletoe in the South is to shoot it out of the tree with a shotgun. I was a little skeptical about this approach for many reasons. So we hauled out an old ladder we found in the barn and hoped it would reach high enough. That's another thing about mistletoe. It seems to prefer the highest branches on a tree on which to grow. We could only reach a small clump of it from the top of our ladder. Even this relatively "low growing" cluster was a little too high for my comfort and letting go of the ladder to do my clipping (and photographing) left me more than a little uneasy.
The botanical name for American Mistletoe, Phoradendron leucarpum, is derived from the Greek words for "tree thief". It is a hemi-parasitic shrub which obtains water and nutrients from its host, although it also produces some of its own food through its own photosynthetic processes. The common name "Mistletoe" may come from the Anglo-Saxon words for "dung twig". This alludes to the plants method of propagation. Some birds enjoy eating the sticky white mistletoe berries which, when passed through the digestive system and deposited on a branch, may germinate into a new plant.
It is unclear why we kiss under mistletoe. The practice may have originated with the Druids who believed the plant to be sacred. It is said that if two enemies met under a mistletoe plant, they must lay down their weapons, great each other warmly and observe a truce until the following day.
In any case, we have been kissing under the "dung twig" for hundreds of years. Washington Irving referenced the tradition in The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., first published in 1819.
the mistletoe, with its white berries, hung up, to the imminent peril of all the pretty housemaids.** 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.
The only mistletoe we were able to reach was devoid of any berries, so I guess our kissing privileges were gone before they even began.