Kissing Under the Dung Twig

In the deep south the stuff is everywhere. I remember this time of year heading out with my .22 and shooting it out of the tops of oaks. Back inside, we taped or tacked sprigs of it over doorways before parties and added it’s gray-greenness to seasonal arrangements on table and mantel.

I guess I never really thought about the lifestyle or history of a plant we call mistletoe–but the word origin actually translates as “dung twig.” Buzzkill? Sorry.

The plant is a partial parasite, its sticky (and poisonous) white berries deposited on high branches in the poop of birds–hence the name. And now that you have this extra bit of botanical lore, you’ll be all the more motivated than ever to stand under the poop plant while puckered at a party.

What I did not know is that there are quite a few kinds of mistletoe. Some of the species are entirely parasitic and thus leafless. There are mistletoes of cacti that are all but invisible save for their tiny flowers. And dwarf mistletoes are also not lightly parasitic but capable of doing considerable harm as bearers of western conifer diseases. Arceuthobium – Google Images Search

[su_quote]Severe dwarf mistletoe infection can result in a reduction in tree growth, premature tree mortality, reduced seed and cone development, reduced wood quality, and increase the susceptibility of the host tree to pathogen and/or insect attack. Most of the commercially important conifers in western North America are parasitized by one or more dwarf mistletoes.[/su_quote]

On the plus side, besides sanctioning the juxtaposition of the orbicularir oris muscles beneath it, the mistletoe that grows in ash trees may hold promise in treatment of colon cancer.

How the kissing came about involves the Goddess Loki, Baldur and other Norse imaginaries. The Smithsonian piece is most complete in this regard.

Mistletoe: The Evolution of a Christmas Tradition | Smithsonian

Why We Kiss Under the Mistletoe

Why Do We Kiss Under The Mistletoe? | Mental Floss 

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Fellow botanist, I loved learning about mistletoe. Your shooting it out of oaks with a .22 was equally unknown and intersting as that fascinating stuff about Norse gods. Being 1/2 Norwegian myself made it even more intersting to me. I will print out that article from mental floss and keep it with my Christmas stuff.