As Christmas Day closes in, festive lights, glittering ornaments, and a variety of decorations fill your home. However, did you know the mistletoe hanging above your front door or by your fireplace is far from merriment — and is indeed a hemiparasite?
There are a total of 1,300 mistletoe species worldwide, originating from plant families of Loranthaceae, Misodendraceae, and Santalaceae. In the 18th and 19th centuries, druidic ideals formed the kissing tradition with the mistletoe. These ideals took inspiration from Norse Mythology, where it illustrates the disputes between gods: the mischievous Loki weaponised mistletoe to kill Balder the Beautiful, whenceforth the plant later served as a reminder of the importance of peace and prosperity. Meanwhile, its evergreen stems are a symbol of fertility, endurance, and continuance in life.
We are often blinded by the romantic customs associated with its white berries and counterparts, however, these customs actually originate from mistletoe’s bizarre breeding! By breeding on branches and depending on the life of host trees, they become one with them. This picture of persisting unity paints a romantic scene. Since mistletoes are inseparable from their hosts, some of their seeds are transported by fruit-eating birds who consume the berries and excrete seeds on other available hosts such as timber. Sometimes the berries burst and blast seeds up to 15 metres away at 50 kilometres per hour and grow on suitable grounds. The mistletoe does not die unless the host does, which makes the pair seem straight out of the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet!
Yet don’t be fooled by cupid’s arrow. Mistletoes are hemiparasites! Although they generate resources from photosynthesis, they depend largely on host vegetation to survive. During the process of breeding, they take nutrients and water out of their hosts, deforming them and lowering their life productivity to keep their leaves thriving and green during winters. Mistletoes are also poisonous– both humans and animals can get poisoned by touching the plant and consuming its berries.
A bubbling pot of joys and nightmares: a casserole of mythologies, traditions, beliefs, and science — the mistletoe is as misleading as it sounds!