Mistletoe: How a Parasite Became Synonymous With Kissing


| LAST UPDATE 12/27/2022

By Veronica Anderson
Kissing Under The Mistletoe
Instagram via @meandmrjonesfrodsham

Now that Christmas is over, we're here to share some news about the famous mistletoe. Legend says that if you are caught under the mistletoe, you owe a kiss to whoever is standing with you! The tradition dates back to the 1700s, when "kissing balls" made of boxwood, holly and mistletoe were hung in windows and doorways during the holiday season. The old tradition says the kiss would increase one's chances of marriage, so they wouldn't be single when Christmas rolls around the following year. And, after each kiss under the mistletoe, one berry is removed until they are all gone! However, the kissing plant carries a secret ingredient behind its romantic identity we had no idea about.

A classic holiday favorite, the mistletoe might be considered the kissing plant, but in all actuality, the plant is a hemiparasite that attacks living trees. Phoradendron, a genus of mistletoe used for decoration purposes, translates to "thief of the tree" in Greek. The kissing plant comes from sandalwood and has transformed into thousands of species over the years, but unlike sandalwood, mistletoe infiltrates tree branches and takes energy from the sap of its tree and the sun.

Mistletoe Parasite Christmas Tradition
Uli Deck/picture alliance via Getty Images
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Mistletoes have evolved over time by producing sticky seeds packed in berries that birds eat. The sticky seeds are covered with a clear substance called viscin, then defecated after potentially landing on a tree or branch and claiming it as a new host. The mistletoe can cause stress to the trees, which are more than more exposed to diseases and insects, causing their limbs to die! So despite the fairytale description of mistletoe, they can be harmful to nature.

Unfortunately, it doesn't stop there. Mistletoe can too be toxic to pets and people. According to horticulturist Allison Watkins from AgriLife Extension, the plant in small doses shouldn't be a problem and carries positive qualities. Wildlife specialist Maureen Frank reported, "Squirrels will also eat the berries, and deer and porcupines will eat the plant itself," while the dense foliage is also used as shade for many animal species! And, of course, the mistletoe gives us ultimate cheer during the holiday season.

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