Fun Facts About Mistletoe

There is more to mistletoe than kissing and holiday romance

Mistletoe
Mistletoe sprig. Foodcollection RF/Getty Images

Everyone knows about the power of mistletoe at Christmas, right? It makes holiday romance democratic by making everyone equally kissable—friends, strangers, and distant cousins. Wander beneath a sprig of mistletoe at a holiday party and, like it or not, you become fair game to anyone whose lips are within range.

But there is much more to mistletoe than kissing and holiday merriment. This year, don’t just fill up on eggnog as you linger near the mistletoe, hoping that special someone you secretly adore will stroll by unawares or back up just another few steps.

Fun Facts About Mistletoe

Here are a few fun facts about mistletoe from the U.S. Geological Survey to help you pass the time and make the wait for your holiday kiss seem shorter:

  • American mistletoe, the kind most often associated with kissing, is one of 1,300 species of mistletoe worldwide but one of only two that are native to the United States. The other is dwarf mistletoe.
  • Twenty species of mistletoe are endangered, so be careful what you pluck from the forest for your next holiday party.
  • Phoradendron, the scientific name for American mistletoe, means "thief of the tree" in Greek. Essentially a parasite, mistletoe sinks its roots into a host tree and leeches nutrients from the tree to supplement its own photosynthesis. These roots fool the tree into thinking they are some of its young branches, and diverting resources towards them. Branches past the mistletoe roots are eventually starved of resources and die off. By stealing resources from the host trees, mistletoe facilitates branch loss, wood decay, and entry of diseases into the the tree.
  • Sadly, the translation of the word “mistletoe” itself isn’t very romantic. A few centuries back, some people apparently observed that mistletoe tended to take root where birds had left their droppings. “Mistal” is an Anglo-Saxon word that means “dung” and “tan” means “twig,” so mistletoe actually means “dung on a twig.”
  • The growth of mistletoe had little to do with the bird droppings and a lot to do with the birds themselves. Mistletoe seeds are extremely sticky and often latch onto birds’ beaks or feathers or the fur of other woodland creatures, hitchhiking to a likely host tree before dropping off and starting to germinate. Their glue-like coating ensures their attaching to a new tree, propagating the infestation.
  • The dwarf mistletoe doesn’t have to rely solely on hitchhiking to find a host tree. The seeds of the dwarf mistletoe can explode from ripe berries and shoot as far as 50 feet.
  • Despite its parasitic tendencies, mistletoe has been a natural part of healthy forest ecosystems for millions of years. If removal of mistletoe is needed to protect valuable ornamental trees, they can be easily knocked off (although they often regrow), or the host branch can be pruned off.
  • Mistletoe is toxic to people, but the berries and leaves provide high-protein food for many animals. Many bird species rely on mistletoe for food and nesting material. Butterflies lay their eggs on the plants and use the nectar as food. Mistletoe is also an important pollen and nectar plant for bees.

    Edited by Frederic Beaudry.