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Myths and History of Mistletoe and Magnolia

Mistletoe in a Water Tupelo Tree - photo by Stibolt

The evergreen globes of mistletoe are more evident in the winter.

From ancient times in the Old World, people have brought evergreens inside so the gods of spring would have safe haven for the winter; and they celebrated the beginning of the return of the sun with various festivals. Early Christians adapted the pagan traditions with new stories and customs. New traditions are started and some become popular while others seem to fade away.

Meet me under the hemi-parasite

American Mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum*) is a shrublet native to the whole southeastern section of the US including Florida and is a partial parasite (hemiparasitical, to use the botanical term) because it must grow from the branches of a host tree. It has special root-like system called haustoria that invade the host tree to extract moisture and whatever nutrients are in the tree’s system. Because this mistletoe has green leaves and photosynthesizes its own sugar, it is not a complete parasite. Some other species of mistletoe do not photosynthesize and cause more damage to their host trees.

At this time of year you can see the evergreen globes of mistletoe growing in the tops of oaks and some other trees more easily because while it stays green, the host trees are deciduous and lose their leaves in the winter. The photo above shows a globe of mistletoe in a Water Tupelo (Nyssa aquatica) where two weeks later a flock of Cedar Waxwings ate all the berries.

The common name, Mistletoe, is derived from Old English—“mistle” meaning drizzle or mist (It came to mean dung in this context.), plus “tan” which means twig. The ancient people in Europe thought that it sprouted directly from the bird droppings (particularly those of the mistle thrush, named after mistletoe) without thinking that the seeds survive the birds’ digestive process—gizzards and all. (I’m reminded of my friend Helen Marshall’s experience in New Jersey where she’d end up with hundreds of tomato seedlings in her garden after turning fully composted horse manure into her garden each spring. It’s amazing what seeds will endure and still germinate.)

In order to simplify the gathering of mistletoe for the Christmas trade, people have tried to cultivate it without success. Apparently it needs to be deposited on a branch by birds as they do what they can to lighten their loads. Anyway, mistletoe is not in cultivation so the folks who harvest it for us have to work hard to retrieve it. They shoot it down with a shotgun, climb up the trees to chop it down or use cherry pickers to get high enough to harvest it. This may explain the high prices you see.

Mistletoe graft on a Water Oak. Photo by Stibolt

Plant grafts from Heaven!

You can understand how the ancients must have been mystified by mistletoe. (The European version is a different species, Viscum alba.) It lives (stays green) while the host tree apparently dies over the winter. It never touches the ground, so it must be purer somehow. Some thought that it must be a plant graft from heaven and if you look carefully in the photo I took, you can see how someone could think that. The host tree becomes swollen at the spot where the mistletoe enters it.

One of the more elaborate of the many mistletoe legends from various regions of Europe is the legend of Baldur. When the Norse god Baldur was born, his mother Frigga, the goddess of love, asked everything in the world not to harm him. Since mistletoe doesn’t grow from the ground she’d forgot to ask it not to harm her son. The mischievous god Loki figured this out, fashioned an arrow made from mistletoe, and tricked Baldur's blind brother to shoot him with the deadly arrow. Baldur came back to life in the spring, but it was because his mother prayed for his life under the mistletoe. The legend goes, if you stand under the mistletoe on the darkest days of winter, spring will come and Baldur will come back to life.

During the time of the Roman Empire, Roman soldiers would lay down their arms under the mistletoe and embrace their enemies. It’s been used for various medicinal purposes, to treat infertility and for love potions. Today we’ve merged all these stories together into the simple tradition of kissing under the mistletoe to bring you good luck. So meet me under the parasite… but don’t eat the berries because they are either poisonous, a cancer remedy or an aphrodisiac depending upon whom you ask.

Magnificent Magnolias (revisited)

One of the reasons that I’ve always wanted my own Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) is because I wanted to use the wonderful glossy leaves in wreaths and other holiday decorations without paying the high prices. I had in mind some of the wonderful and traditional colonial Williamsburg wreaths made with the apples and pineapples. This style is also very popular in Annapolis where I used to live. Many years ago after visiting Williamsburg to enjoy the Christmas celebrations, the simple spray on my door paled in comparison to the grand displays we’d seen there. I completely redid my door décor by adding cranberry chains, small apples, nuts and a much fancier bow.

Williamsburg magnolia decorationVery traditional… right? Wrong. I found a well-researched article on the Williamsburg website by Mary Miley Theobald stating that the colonists would never have put fruit on their doors. The well-fruited door decorations we connect with the colonial period actually started in Williamsburg in the 1930’s when the first Christmas decoration contests were held. Mary states, “…with richness of color produced by the use of either natural or artificial fruit as an embellishment. This idea was undoubtedly suggested by the gorgeous Italian carvings and terra cottas of the Renaissance... The magazine was referring to fifteenth-century Italian sculptor Luca della Robbia and his progeny, the family whose name has become synonymous with fruit and foliage swags.”

I know Mary personally and trust her research, but one of the Midwestern university extension websites states that pomegranates and other fruits were used on wreaths during colonial times. Since pomegranates are one of the few fruits mentioned in the Bible, perhaps colonists used them for Christmas, but since they are native to the Middle East that seems unlikely. I offer this so that you may make up your own mind on the traditions. (The magnolia wreath is in the photo above is from the Williamsburg catalog and is available for purchase.)

Truly or newly traditional, magnolia leaves look wonderful as part of your door décor when complemented by apples, pineapples, pinecones, holly or other greenery. While the leathery coating will keep them looking good for some time, you may wish to spray them with wax or soak them in glycerin and water to keep them looking good for weeks.

Remember to prune well as you’re cutting off the branches to use. You should look at the overall shape of the tree and prune the branches that are too close together or ones that are sticking out at odd angles. Always prune flush with the next branch so the tree can heal itself more easily. A well-pruned magnolia will look better and will bloom more. A tree that gives pleasure in all seasons is truly magnificent. Enjoy your holiday preparations.

In my next column I’ll continue this discussion of Christmas plants and traditions with information on holly, ivy, poinsettia and the Christmas pickle!

* Note for those of you interested in the correct scientific binomial for mistletoe: Phoradendron flavescens and P. serotinum have also been used for the same species. But according to Dr. James Reveal, professor emeritus University of Maryland, P. leucarpum is the accepted name.


Ginny Stibolt would like to hear from readers who have suggestions and questions. After all, there are more than a few transplanted gardeners Florida trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t in planting zone 8/9. She's wrote, "Sustainable Gardening for Florida," published by University Press of Florida that was released in 2009. Now she's written "Organic Methods for Growing Vegetables in Florida" with Melissa Contreras in Miami. The new book will be released in Feb 2013. You may contact her or read extra details on her articles and other information posted on her website: www.greengardeningmatters.com.

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