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Tuesday, October 21, 2014
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Published: Wednesday, 12/19/2007

Mistletoe has its own holiday magic

Got the mistletoe hanging in your doorway? It's nice to include a little sprig of the romantic vine in holiday decorations, but did you ever wonder why you should stop and kiss your favorite Christmas elf? The stories are rooted in history.

According to folklore, the kissing custom is English. When two people meet under a sprig of mistletoe they are obliged to kiss. And, the mistletoe can't touch the ground when it is cut. That's why you usually find it hanging.

According to another story, people took away one of the mistletoe's berries each time they kissed, and when all the fruit was gone, the little vine lost its Christmas magic and the kissing stopped. Other love legends say a couple kissing under the mistletoe will have good luck; a couple that passes under without kissing will have bad luck. And if you burn a small sprig of dried mistletoe, steady flames mean you will have a healthy marriage. Weak flames mean a woman may never marry at all.

In ancient times, people thought the berries were an antidote to poison. People were really living on the edge in those times, because they also thought the berries were an aphrodisiac or the soul of the oak tree as it grows.

In reality, mistletoe could be considered an obsessed lover. It is a parasite plant that lives on the branches of another tree or shrub. It has a less romantic nickname, "the vampire plant," because it grows under the bark of its host victim and draws the life out of it. Not so romantic after all, is it?

There are more than 900 species of mistletoe in the family. Some are pollinated by insects and birds. Typically found on hardwoods like oak or apple, they take all their food from the host tree, and a heavy growth will damage the host plant. But if the host plant dies, so does the mistletoe.

Many people get it mixed up with holly. But the only thing they have in common is, that both have berries and stay green in the winter. Holly leaves are dark green and leathery with points around the edge. Mistletoe leaves are shaped like a tongue with a broad end. They are leathery so they can make it through the winter, but aren't dark green and shiny like holly. Mistletoe leaves are dull yellowish green.

The berries are anything but romantic. Scientists know that the berry itself contains viscotoxins and is poisonous. Eating them can cause stomach cramps and diarrhea, according to the Michigan State Department of Health. Mistletoe grows all around the world and its seeds are carried by birds after they eat the white and red berries. The sticky fruit doesn't bother birds. They drop the seeds or wipe their beaks on a tree and the seed starts to grow. It only takes about six weeks to germinate, but five years to flower and produce fruit.

So, grab someone and pucker up as you pass under the mistletoe. But be sure not to eat it!



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