Kissin’ and Viscin

The Mistletoe in Popular Pastimes ~ FW Stephanoff (1816)

Long  ago and far away — in 1950s Iowa, that is — grocery store produce sections marked the beginning of the holiday season by laying in a supply of cranberries, mixed nuts, and mistletoe. The mistletoe wasn’t for eating, but for hanging. Three or four stems, bearing scattered white berries and tied with red ribbon, were considered de rigueur for New Year celebrations; hanging in doorways or from overhead light fixtures, they ensured opportunities for traditional New Year’s kisses.

Mistletoe traditions can be traced to very early times, when mistletoe was part of winter solstice celebrations. Druids revered the oak; their reverence included the mistletoe which grew on oaks, and which was assumed to have healing properties.

In time, new traditions developed. An anonymously-written book published in 1816 — Popular Pastimes, being a Selection of Picturesque Representations of the Customs & Amusements of Great Britain in Ancient and Modern Timescontained hand-colored plates attributed to Francis Philip Stephanoff, and this delightful passage (note that the spelling of ‘mistletoe’ has changed over the centuries):

Mistletoe is still beheld with emotions of pleasurable interest, when hung up in our kitchens at Christmas; it gives licence to seize “the soft kiss” from the ruby lips of whatever female can be enticed or caught beneath. So custom authorizes, and it enjoins also, that one of the berries of the Misletoe be plucked off after every salute. Though coy in appearance, the “chariest maid” at this season of festivity is seldom loth to submit to the established usage; especially when the swain who tempts her is one whom she approves.

In time, the custom of decorating churches with greens took hold, and mistletoe was included. In his poem Ceremonies for Candlemas Eve, Robert Herrick (1591–1674) wrote about taking down the greenery, including mistletoe, to signal the end of the Christmas season.

Down with the rosemary and bays,
Down with the mistletoe;
Instead of holly, now up-raise
The greener box, for show.

A different poem quoted in Popular Pastimes is undated, but hints that the custom existed in even earlier times.

The Misletoe hangs from an oaken beam,
he Ivy creeps up the outer wall;
The Bays our broken casements screen,
The Holly-bush graces the hall.
Then hey for our Christmas revelling,
For all its pastimes pleasures bring.
The Misletoe’s berries are fair and white,
The Ivy’s of gloomy sable hue;
Red as blood the Laurel’s affect our sight,
And the Holly’s the same with prickles too.
Mr. Fezziwig’s Ball ~ from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol

Before being hung in isolation, mistletoe may have been incorporated into kissing boughs: two intersecting circles of greenery which eventually became our ‘kissing balls.’

When hung in a doorway near the entrance to a house, visitors would embrace the home’s master and mistress under the kissing bough as a sign of goodwill. The inclusion of mistletoe in these kissing boughs may have given rise to the more modern tradition of kissing under mistletoe.

In John Leech’s illustration of Mr Fezziwig’s Christmas party in A Christmas Carol  there appears to be a kissing bough hanging from the ceiling, as well as mistletoe being held by hand over a girl’s head.

Kissing aside, mistletoe may have other uses which our ancestors hardly could have imagined. While reading about the sticky viscin threads that characterize flowers like the Pink Evening Primrose, I noticed a reference to another source of the substance: mistletoe.

American mistletoe ~ Phoradendron leucarpum

Each mistletoe berry can produce up to two metres of sticky viscin threads. The substance allows the seeds of this parasitic plant to stick to and infect its hosts, like the oak trees which the Druids revered. A recent paper from McGill University and the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces suggests that, once processed, viscin’s stiff but flexible fibres, which adhere to both skin and cartilage as well as to various synthetic materials, could have a range of applications.

That discovery also was serendipitous. Matthew Harrington, a senior author on the McGill paper, wrote:

I had never seen mistletoe before living in Germany. So, when my daughter was playing with a berry from a mistletoe we bought from a local Christmas market, and it started sticking to everything, I was intrigued.

Researchers eventually discovered that viscin fibres, which stick to themselves as well as to other materials, could be stretched into thin films, making them potentially useful as wound sealant or skin covering. The fact that the viscin’s stickiness is reversible under humid conditions makes it even more interesting, and more useful.

Given the properties of its viscin-laden berries, the mistletoe draping our Texas oaks eventually may become more than an unsightly or bothersome parasite; that could be worth both a hug and a kiss.

Comments always are welcome.

57 thoughts on “Kissin’ and Viscin

    1. Even the botanists and such occasionally seem perplexed about the growth patterns of the plant. It will chose one species over another, even in the same yard, and sometimes will grow on only one or two trees in a group of similar trees. At least you have some! It’s great food for the birds, and apparently there are many that will nest inside it — including owls and hawks.

  1. In Old English the word was mistiltan, where the first two syllables were already the word for ‘mistletoe’ and the tan meant ‘twig.’ The first part on its own evolved to missel, which continued for centuries as the name of the plant but was ultimately replaced by the compound mistletoe. Missel, now more often mistle, still exists as the name of a kind of thrush that eats (or was believed to eat) mistletoe.

      1. Viscum provided the family name for the plant, too. It took me a while to figure out that the Viscaceae contains multiple genera; some bear a related name, but ours is Phoradendron leucarpum.

    1. There are birds that eat mistletoe berries, even though they’re poisonous to humans: cedar waxwings, grouse, mourning doves, bluebirds, evening grosbeaks, robins, and pigeons. Plenty of mammals can safely consume the plant, too. I read that some ranchers consider it a crop of last resort. In a particularly lean year, they’ll harvest mistletoe and feed it to their cattle.

    1. That really surprises me. It grows on a variety of trees in our area — oaks, hickory, hackberry, and elms, among others. A TAMU site says it grows on pines in west Texas, but I don’t know if it will grow on pines in our area. Now’s the time to look for it. Between the freeze and seasonal defoliation, it’s much easier to spot.

  2. Interesting post, Linda. I didn’t know much about mistletoe’s history but I do have fond memories of it from my partying days in the 60s. I haven’t seen it much in recent years, but maybe that’s because I have been looking for it either.

  3. How interesting. In a former home we had mistletoe growing on an apple tree. Since living here I have tried many times to get it growing on an old apple tree with no success even though I push the berries into the bark.xxx

    1. I came across an interesting article that touches on mistletoe’s sometimes odd growth patterns. Here’s one paragraph:

      “Any host tree selectivity may indicate a slightly different genetic make-up for a local mistletoe colony, or it may be a reflection of something entirely different–perhaps unusual microclimate or even unique soil minerals that potential host trees handle differently. One Australian study showed mistletoes there were more common on roadside trees than in deep woods, primarily because water ran off highways onto roots and made highway trees less susceptible to drying.”

      If you’re not intent on duplicating the growth on an apple tree, maybe a different species would do the trick.

  4. Some great information in there, Linda. Your poem from ‘Popular Pastimes’ reminds me very strongly of the carol ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ and I wonder if that might have been the source material for it?

    1. I don’t think one was the source for the other. Instead, they developed along the same lines, through a long, similar time. “The Holly and The Ivy” first appeared in print in William Hone’s 1823 book, Ancient Mysteries Described, but it’s much older. Holly and ivy were associated with the solstice in Druid culture; during Beltane celebrations, holly (male) and ivy (female) were burnt together as a sign of fertility.

  5. Interesting and informative post, Linda. This is the first year in many that I haven’t hung up mistletoe. It’s a tradition we’ve always observed, but timing of our trip out west messed with decorating… at least we got the tree up!

    1. It’s a fun tradition. As I recall, we never hung mistletoe until a day or two before New Year’s Eve, as a way of separating New Year celebrations from Christmas. When I moved to Texas, New Year’s eve was less about mistletoe and more about fireworks. I wonder if any young entrepreneurs harvest the plant in the city and sell it to the city folk?

  6. Very interesting, and I giggled a bit over the line “And the Holly’s the same with prickles too.” Although we have a lot of the host trees, I don’t think it’ll grow this far north.

      1. Flin Flon Manitoba! Whoever would have predicted its newspaper would become famous through an article about mistletoe and witches’ brooms! I learned about witches’ brooms in college – they’re kind of sought after here in southern Ontario since they create dwarf conifer cultivars (I was taught). But I never knew they are the result of dwarf mistletoe infestation.

        1. I hadn’t heard of witches’ brooms until about four days ago. It’s such a wonderfully descriptive phrase. What really tickled me was learning that so many bird species nest in them: owls, hawks, and so on. Which of your classes involved witches’ brooms? Botany? or Sorcery?

  7. Interesting traditions and science. It was always a treat to find it as a child in a tree but I don’t remember paying any attention to the stickiness. I never thought about a grocery store selling it.

    1. When I looked at the iNaturalist map to see where in Texas mistletoe grows, I noticed something else. There’s not a single observation listed for Iowa. We had to buy it in the grocery store — there weren’t any trees to pull it from! I’d not thought about it much, but now I realize I’ve been in Texas so long seeing mistletoe seems normal — in my old stomping grounds, it wasn’t!

  8. A duplex I once lived in had a locust tree that was badly infested with mistletoe. The infestation eventually killed the tree. I was of two minds about it. On the one hand, it was a locust tree and anually made a mess of beans and the resultant and ubiquitous seedlings in the lawn, but on the other hand the tree died.

    1. From what I’ve read, a few clumps of mistletoe won’t harm a tree, but something that’s covered with the stuff, as yours was, risks an early death. Since mistletoe makes chlorophyll as well as utilizing its host tree, size does matter: or at least the amount of coverage does.

  9. The fun of tradition and the marvel of scientific discovery. A twig of greenery with a few berries offers a chance to steal a kiss and perhaps some day will heal a wound.

    After Thanksgiving, the woods around here become busy with mistletoe harvesters. I presume their bundles will be sold to grocers and produce stands for the holidays. The old oak trees seem to sigh in relief.

    I tried that steal a kiss thing with Gini when we were in high school. She said “you don’t need mistletoe if you want to kiss me”. The rest, as they say, is history.

    We have returned to those thrilling days of 65 degrees at sunrise and 80 by noon. Ahhh. Florida in winter!

    Happy New Year!

    1. There’s a phrase I’ve never heard: ‘mistletoe harvesters.’ Of course someone had to gather what ended up as little plastic-wrapped bundles in our grocery stores, but it never occurred to me that Floridians might be involved. To be honest, I had no idea where it came from; it could have come from merrie olde England as far as I knew.

      It’s good that you have some lovely Florida warmth again. I hope both you and Gini are feeling much better, and are ready to enjoy it. With the holiday hoopla behind us, I’m eager to wrap up the last of the Walden West posts, and begin hiking into the new year.

  10. I first saw mistletoe hanging from the trees in France. It was odd and lovely. I’m glad there are potential medical applications for the viscin. Thanks for this — I knew some, far from all, of course. And no one tells history so well as you! Merriest and thank you. Happy New Year, my friend!

    1. It seems your Michigan mistletoe is a different species than ours; there are so many species what you saw in France probably differs from both. No matter. They’re all fun, and no doubt they all have been used in celebrations. To paraphrase the old saying, the more mistletoe, the merrier!

  11. How interesting! I haven’t seen mistletoe growing naturally in Missouri, but I do see it included in Christmas greenery decorations. And I grew up with the tradition that being under the mistletoe meant a kiss!

    1. Mistletoe doesn’t grow in Iowa, and when I looked at the maps, I discovered it barely grows in Missouri. There’s some in the boot heel, and a bit around St. Louis, but that’s it. Mistletoe-deprived you and I had to depend on our grocery stores for our kiss-inducing greenery!

  12. Again, you’ve provided me with some welcome new info: the website iNaturalist is a great resource! I’m tempted to harvest a clump of my own to investigate more closely… but I’ll have to quarantine it, since I don’t want its sticky berries to come to roost anywhere nearby.

    1. The upside to mistletoe is that so many birds nest in it and feed on it — as do many mammals and other critters. It seems it can be particular about its host, though. One of my readers has been trying to get it to ‘take’ on some of her trees, with no luck. Strange.

      I’ve found iNaturalist great for checking locations and double-checking IDs. I don’t use it for initial identification, for a variety of reasons. But if I want to know if a certain plant has started blooming, or want to know if a species of bird has begun showing up in our area, it’s terrific; it’s often more current than the BONAP or USDA maps for plants.

  13. What interesting information! I certainly didn’t know all that. I’ve never been a big fan of mistletoe, actually, because of its supposed toxicity (particularly to animals). I realize that hanging it up high enough for adults to kiss beneath probably negates those fears, but you never know!

    1. It’s not going to affect us if we’re just collecting it or hanging it. Just don’t add it to your salad, since eating it is a problem for humans. Since a lot of birds and animals eat the berries, I wasn’t sure about their effect on cats and dogs, but you’re right; the plant’s toxic for them both. The leaves and the berries both can cause serious problems. If you have some around, hang it high — and secure!

  14. I didn’t know mistletoe was a parasitic plant. First, it steals a kiss from the trees.

    I wonder if the sticky berries to the birds are like peanut butter for people…

    1. I’d always heard mistletoe was parasitic. Then, I learned there are full parasites like dwarf mistletoes, and hemiparasites, or partial parasites, like the mistletoe we use for holiday decoration. Since the hemiparasites contain chlorophyll, they use their host plant for only part of their nourishment, and don’t necessarily kill trees — unless the infestation is really bad.

      Another familiar hemiparasite is the wildflower known as Indian paintbrush. Sometimes they draw nourishment from the roots of other plants, but if the connection can’t be made, they’ll thrive on their own. It really is amazing.

  15. I thought it odd that it was used at New Years s as I always associated it with Christmas, we usually bought it where we bought our Christmas tree growing up. My parents had a special bow or something they hung it with from a hook in the middle of the wide doorway from the foyer to the family room.

    I know the berries are poisonous, seems like that would make them unsuitable for a skin covering. Or maybe only if ingested.

    1. As I understand it, the viscin that is the source of the stickness isn’t toxic; it’s a part of other plants, too, and the scientists somehow can isolate it for human use. Eating the berries isn’t a good idea, though. The birds can do it, but there’s trouble ahead for any human who gives them a try.

  16. I was always too shy to take advantage of what mistletoe promised. Tempted but never bold enough. And I certainly had no knowledge of it’s history so thank you for a very informative post. And thank you too for the delightful illustration of “Mr. Fezziwig’s Ball”.

    1. For some strange reason, I think I’d really like Mr. Fezziwig. Look at those socks! I love both illustrations. They remind me of junior high parties, with the boys and girls eyeing one another and benevolent parents looking on from the side: perhaps remember their own young days.

    1. Lucky you to have it so close. Is it in deciduous trees? I think it’s especially interesting when our trees lose their leaves, and only the balls of mistletoe are showing. There’s a lot that becomes visible in the fall and winter, that’s for sure.

  17. Catching up to this delightfully interesting discussion! I can remember the mistletoe hanging in the hallway at my aunt and uncle’s home. Thank you Linda for stirring up a hidden memory.

    1. My suspicion is that most of us ‘of a certain age’ remember those beribboned bundles and balls of mistletoe. Of course, in those days, ‘stealing’ a kiss was quite an event, and accosting someone under the mistletoe required nerve!

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