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Parasitic woodland plant found in treetops has intrigued humankind for millennia
Ancient Druids judged the sprigs of greenery to be sacred gifts and wonders of the earth. During of the Middle Ages, families rich and poor gathered it from forests and hung balls of it from ceilings and barn doors. Far closer to our own times, Barbra Streisand sang about the plant's impact on us, crediting it for stoking the fires of love. What plant can boast such a hallowed history? Mistletoe, of course. Or, as Streisand declared in her 2001 tune, "It must have been the mistletoe."
Many Perry Countians adorn their homes with greenery, real or artificial in nature, around the holidays, but usually don't include mistletoe in their celebrations. The green sprigs aren't exactly scarce but don't grow from every tree. But the legend-inspiring plant can be found growing, on occasion, high in the branches. Those trees shorn of their leaves by winter have a hard time hiding the evergreen companions clinging to their bare branches.
The plant has its parasitic ways, not exactly a warm tribute, but key to its nature. The plant certainly knows how to survive, drawing moisture and minerals from host trees through roots that probe through bark. Mistletoe rarely kills trees in our area but it can certainly disfigure them. Two trees along French Ridge Road, pictured below, are burdened with dozens of mistletoe clumps.
Birds eat the mistletoe berries, which appear in winter, and deposit them in new locations through their droppings. That continues the cycle of life, one as rich as the legends and lore we and long generations of our ancestors have given to the plant over the millennia.
Mistletoe was held sacred by Druids, since it appeared to grow miraculously without roots and never touched the ground. Commonly found on apple trees in Europe, the scarcest and most revered mistletoe was found growing on oak trees. Druids allowed only priests wielding golden shears to harvest that mistletoe and the plant was believed to be robbed of its powers if allowed to touch the ground.
Some considered the plant a curer of disease and offered it as a remedy to everything from indigestion to poisoning and infertility. But the real magic went beyond medicine. A branch or two of mistletoe hanging in a house might keep evil spirits at bay, it was long said, and some rural customs called for mistletoe to be hung from barns to keep witches from entering. Other superstitions were more practical and claimed the plant's presence in barns and granaries prevented lightning strikes and fires.
Mistletoe was also a sign of peace. Longtime enemies on the battlefield could meet under sprigs of mistletoe without fear of being attacked. The courtesy even extended to warring family members and spouses, all of whom could discuss terms of concord under a ball of mistletoe.
The custom of including mistletoe in Christmas customs developed later in history and the plant was hung in doorways for luck and for the extra greenery it provided during the otherwise drab winter. But mistletoe's ties to love have been the most lasting. In Britain and, later, in parts of the European continent, single men and women were told it was OK to steal a chaste kiss while standing under boughs of mistletoe. Some aspiring lovers even hoped to find a future spouse amid the kisses and many feared that to be denied a kiss by anyone with the plant around was a promise of lifelong bachelorhood or spinsterdom. Mistletoe and kisses are still inextricably linked.
As Streisand sings:
"It only took one kiss to know
It must have been the mistletoe!
Ah, St. Nicholas must have known that kiss
Would lead to all of this!"
Those who wander the quiet, bare woods of Perry County during winter may be fortunate enough to spy the clumps of green high up in the branches. They should consider themselves lucky. For few other plants are so rich in history. For what other than mistletoe can stoke emotions and aspirations of love and nature's wonder? Or, as Streisand concludes,
"It must have been the mistletoe
The lazy fire, the falling snow
The magic in the frosty air
That made me love you!
On Christmas Eve our wish came true
That I would fall in love with you
It only took one kiss to know
It must have been the mistletoe!
It must have been the mistletoe!"