Photo Credit – Jean and Fred Hort

‘Tis the season of bright lights, jingle bells, and perhaps mistletoe. And should one find themselves standing beneath a sprig of mistletoe with someone else, tradition holds that they should kiss, lest bad luck befall them.

That tradition may be part of pop culture, but do you know that mistletoe is a parasitic plant? It is! Mistletoe plants live above ground, on the woody parts of other shrubs and trees. Mistletoe can only survive and reproduce on a living host, which makes them an obligatory parasite. Their roots penetrate their host enabling them to steal nutrients and water. Despite being a parasite, though, they seem to have little effect on their host.

The plant’s name comes from an Anglo-Saxon word, mistel, which means dung, and tan, meaning twig. The reason for the name is because long ago people believed that bird droppings propagated mistletoe. That belief was actually largely true, except that it was not the droppings themselves that propagated mistletoe, but the seeds the droppings contained. In the 16th century botanists made this discovery; birds ate the berries, the meal passed through their digestive systems, and the seeds were deposited elsewhere. Side note, a lot of seed dispersal occurs this way.

The kissing tradition surrounding mistletoe dates back to ancient times, perhaps as far back as the first century AD. Read the full history here. However you celebrate, happy holidays!