Mistletoe: A Natural and Human History

mistletoeThe myths and natural history behind the holiday mistletoe tradition.

By Lisa Ballard

It’s that time of year again, when it’s difficult to avoid certain songs. Like “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” The tune, written by British lyricist Tommy Connor and performed by 13-year-old Jimmy Boyd, reached number one on the Billboard charts in December 1952.

Since then, dozens of artists including Andy Williams, The Four Seasons, The Jackson 5, John Mellencamp, John Prine and Twisted Sister, have recorded versions of it. Under which plant did that kiss happen? Mistletoe, of course. Most of us don’t pause to ponder the plant, but we understand the tradition. References to mistletoe continue in nearly every romantically-themed holiday song, and more than a few holiday specials.

Kissing someone under this leafy evergreen with its waxy, white berries is a cherished Christmas tradition, but that’s only a modern take on a plant laced with lore.

green plant with small leaves on black background
© Jean-Pascal Milcent / Flickr

The Plant

Perhaps kissing is strongly associated with mistletoe because the plant basically “kisses” its host. Mistletoe is a “hemi-parasite”, which attaches to a tree or shrub using a connective appendage called a “haustorium”, through which it sucks water and nutrients.

It’s hemi- or half-parasitic because many species of mistletoe also conduct photosynthesis, which, in some cases, allows the plant to live on its own, too.

There are 1,300 to 1,500 mistletoe species in the world, most living in tropical or subtropical regions. Australia, for instance, has 85 mistletoe species. By contrast, there’s only one native to the British Isles, but it is the one we see around the holidays.

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