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One of the most common questions we get at the flower shop every Christmas season is about mistletoe. Customers wonder if we have any and why can't they find it anywhere? That question generally leads to whether or not it is toxic. For many years now we haven't sold it.

Mistletoe is a fascinating little plant but is very difficult to find; I don't know of any place that sells it. Perhaps a larger garden centre might. There are a few reasons for this. Generally it is available only in larger purchases, too large for a small retailer. It is not long lasting so there is less of an opportunity to sell it. Plus, it is a poisonous plant, especially the berries, and of course that holds the most interest for children and pets. People who do find fresh mistletoe should note it is best to hang it where kids or pets can't reach it.

There are basically two types of mistletoe: European, which is thought to have medicinal properties and American Mistletoe, the one we associate with our kissing custom and which is known to be toxic. The poison won't kill you unless you ingest large quantities of it or have underlying health concerns, but it can make you very ill. The European version has for years been used to treat a variety of mental and physical conditions. Some people use mistletoe in teas, tinctures and for other medicinal purposes. Today, it is being studied closely for its suspected ability to treat cancer and build immune systems. So far, some animal testing does not support these claims so who knows what the future holds for mistletoe.

The American Mistletoe which has a broader leaf, is the one used for Christmas decorations. Interestingly, the mistletoe plant is considered a parasite. There are over 1,300 species of it and about 20 of them are endangered. It needs a host to survive and finds them among many different varieties of trees and shrubs. Mistletoe doesn't grow on the ground but attaches itself to a tree and the roots burrow into the tree and draw nutrients and moisture. It eventually grows into thick masses of misshapen stems.

Although it is a parasite it doesn't seem to do any direct damage to the tree, although after about 10 to 15 years a lot of trees that have mistletoe will die. On the plus side mistletoe is home to many native varieties of birds, butterflies, insects and even some mammals. Birds and mammals love the berries and birds will nest in mature thick mistletoe. Insects and butterflies will feed on mistletoe and a few varieties of butterflies will lay their eggs on it Some newborn caterpillars thrive on a mistletoe diet. Butterflies will also conduct courtship and mating in mistletoe.

Mistletoe also provides nectar and pollen for honeybees and other native bees. It is one of the first plants available in the spring for bees. As for larger animals like elk, cattle and deer, they eat mistletoe during the winter when fresh greenery is hard to find. Chipmunks, squirrels and porcupines also like the plant. Although mistletoe is liked by most, most foresters consider it a disease that impedes the growth of certain trees. But since it spreads very slowly, many believe it isn't a problem since the death of a tree from a large infestation of mistletoe can take years, even decades. Most judge mistletoe to be a natural part of a growing forest.


A humorous aspect of mistletoe is its origin. From a distance mistletoe often looked like bird droppings on a branch--so explains its Anglo-Saxon origin "mister," meaning dung and "tan," meaning twig. Put them together and mistletoe means dung-on-a-twig! What a pleasant thought when your about to do some holiday smooching.

One other interesting tidbit is that it appears that our tradition of kissing under the mistletoe stems from a Scandinavian myth. Apparently Balder the god of peace was killed with an arrow made from mistletoe. He was brought back to life at the request of the other gods and goddesses and was given to the goddess of love for safekeeping.

Thus, kissing under the mistletoe is practised to show that the mistletoe branch represents love, and not hate, as Balder's arrow originally implied.

-- The staff at McCormick Florist & Gift Shoppe in Paris is offering a special service to its readers in this question and answer column covering topics from gardening to weddings. Feel free to write, call or e-mail McCormick with your questions. The address is 26 Mechanic St., Paris, N3L 1J9; the phone number is 442-4552. Send e-mail to Please include your phone number and address.
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Publication:Paris Chronicle (Paris, Canada)
Date:Nov 23, 2012
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