Mistletoe–An Aphrodisiac?


Wild Mistletoe with a Swag of Spanish Moss

Daily Photo

The lights are shining on Christmas trees throughout the land. Doorways and chandeliers are festooned with mistletoe tied with bright red ribbon. Tender lassies stand on tiptoe to plant soft lips on freshly shaved cheeks still bright with the bloom of youth beneath this festive foliage.

But why?

No one actually seems to know for sure. So I turned my investigative mind onto the problem last December and quickly discovered…ain’t no one hanging the stuff in my house this year!

Though the legend is that a couple kissing under the plant gain good luck for the following year, the reality is that any young girl found near a bunch was fair game for grabbing and planting a kiss on–whether wanted or not.  In fact, the grabbing even got so far out of hand that, according to an old book some countries applied fines for following the custom, The Customs, Superstitions, and Legends of the County of Somerset relates,  “Iceland, once paffed laws and very fevere ones too, againft it and if the lafs [lass] confented, the law demanded three marks.”

Misteltoe is a parasite that gets nutrients from its host plant–usually hardwood trees like oak. The word mistel means dung (not actually a word I usually connect with sweet passion.) Though the plant causes diarrhea if eaten, the reason its name is derived from excrement is because birds eat the berries and defecate the seeds. (Somehow none of this makes me feel like snuggling under a bunch.)

But there is more. Because of the resemblance of the sticky white berry juice to certain…er…excretions on the part of males, the plant is associated with fertility and is considered an aphrodisiac. Thus, the tradition of kissing comes from a desire to be fertile (again, not something I’m looking for this year…or next…or ever again…)

Most people are unaware that the magic only works if the man plucks one berry off for every kiss he exchanges with a woman. When all the berries are gone, so is the plant’s potency.

I gather the man kisses the woman, crushes the berry, and winks as if to say, “Hey baby, want to see more of this stuff.” And the woman is so overcome by his virility and sexual potency that she succumbs to more than his lips. Then they have such great uh… excretions that their partnership is blessed.

Yeah, right…

I prefer wild mistletoe on a wind blown tree to a dead parasite hanging in doorways. What kind of symbolism is that anyway? Let’s hang a parasite, tie it with a red ribbon, and kiss under it for luck? Yikes! Next people will be gathering ticks and sprinkling them on the bed as  an aphrodisiac!

So let us leave the mistletoe. It makes a wonderful nest for all sorts of birds including spotted owls and marbled murrelets. In fact, mistletoe is considered a keystone species. It serves as both food and nesting place for many animals. According to National Geographic’s web site, “Janis Dickinson, a professor of natural resources at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, has found that mistletoe is crucial for western bluebirds. The plant provides a winter food source that can keep young males home with their parents, allowing the birds to build thriving cooperative family units, she said. ‘The mistletoe is probably what gets [the bluebirds] through the cold spells when insects are not active,” she added. “It provides a constant berry crop all winter ..’”

Go ahead and buy a sprig to put in your doorway but as for me, I’ll take my love to the beautiful bunches hanging in the oaks on the hill and exchange a kiss for luck there with the wind in my hair and the sun on my back. Now those are aphrodisiacs we can all agree on.



  • If I weren’t already turned off to this whole holiday season, I certainly am now!

  • Hey, Christmas is wonderful. Mistletoe is wonderful. It just needs to stay alive on the trees not be brought in like a corpse for a wake.

  • Funny, Mike was just asking me the other day how the mistletoe thing came about. I didn’t have a clue. Now I do.

  • Thanks for the insight. I have always loved seeing it in the trees around my house as well as the moss. In the late sixties and early seventies I used to thin out the doug firs on my property and along the county road take them to SF and get my Christmas gift money that way.

    I also used to pick huckleberry brush (used in floral arrangements) with Blackie Adams in Briceland and we’d haul it in to the ice house located behind the Nice Cars lot in Garberville. Blackie traded me my first wood stove for that, an old box stove that on a cold winters day we could get to glowing to stay warm.

    Love the snow falling effect, reminds me, time to go put another log in the stove.

  • Funny, Kym. This brought back flashbacks of biology class at Fortuna High when my teacher told us about why people kiss under mistletoe. Besides the…excretions…he also said that the berries and leaves looked like male genitalia. I think that might be a…stretch. Of course he also explained that women wear lipstick because coloring the lips on their face resembles the flush of their labia when sexually aroused. And some people think you can’t get quality public education!

    Love the snow. xo

  • If I didn’t know how important Christmas was to you, I would think you are on a quest to ruin the holiday. I suppose you are going to attack Grandma’s homemade divinity next. (:-)

    Actually, I enjoyed the article. It was very informative. But, I know now that I will never look at mistletoe in quite the same way again.

  • I almost feel I should leap to the defense of poor, attacked mistletoe. Fertility rituals are not a bad thing, per se. They’re almost as ancient as the act itself.

    But what you said in your comment about hauling it into the house like a corpse, that’s how I feel about the tree! For the first time ever, because I’m so busy this year, I have an artificial tree. It’s beautiful and perfect, nothing died to get it in here and it isn’t shedding any needles or posing any fire hazards! And the lights are built into it.

    I’ve been burning a pine-scented candle in the evenings and my senses are quite satisfied. I feel almost embarrassed by how much I love my artificial tree. At least it’s not a corpse!

  • Oh, and nice photo. A delight as always. I love your photos and feel blessed by them every time. Our beautiful world!:)

  • Oh , man…I really shouldn’t be reading that at work, because I’m laughing out loud!! I should be working instead – busted!! But totally worth it. 🙂

  • “Let’s hang a parasite, tie it with a red ribbon, and kiss under it for luck? ”

    Maybe it is all tounge-in-cheek for parasitic lovers who, once consumed, one must ‘evacuate’ out of thier life.

  • oh, that’s hilarious. you have completely turned me off mistletoe now, LOL.

  • Kym, what doesn’t grow near your property.
    Such amazing landscape you have surrounding you. so glad you have a camera.

  • I’m glad you guys got a chuckle but I hope you all realize, too, how important mistletoe is. Kisses, laughter and bird Exlax–this plant has it all.

  • My sister lives in San Francisco, and she comes up to our house for Thanksgiving every year. Part of our Thanksgiving tradition is gathering a couple of bunches of the ubiquitous mistletoe. I’ve been gathering it since I was young and I haven’t seem to have damaged the supply any.

    My sister makes little bunches with the little white berries on them, and passes them out to her friends, and the people that she works with. She is quite popular with her friends in S.F. where mistletoe is almost impossible to get.

    Strangely, we never put it up in our house. I guess that I’m like you in that respect. It seems silly to kill something and bring it in the house, when it grows in every oak tree in Benbow.

  • Mistletoe is the state flower of Oklahoma. It grows very high on the trees.

  • Gorgeous photo, as always. Love the new “snow.” And thanks for making me think of the innocent mistletoe in a different light :-).

  • I never knew the origin of the kissing tradition, either. Great research, Kym. As interested as I am in plant lore, though, this takes a lot of the charm out of the practice!

    I know the druids had a highly ceremonious ritual for gathering mistletoe at the new year; they used a golden blade to sever it from its oak host, and several priests held a cloth below to catch it before it struck the ground. It was considered a bad omen if the plant touched the earth (which, being a true parasite, it never has to). The “wood” has been found to contain much higher concentrations of potash and phosphoric acid than the host tree itself. Maybe cutting it down in the winter was part of caring for the health of the oaks. It’s illegal to ship mistletoe to many states because it’s such a successful parasite, so don’t use it to decorate any Christmas packages you’re mailing!

    According to Mrs. Grieves’ ancient herbal, Shakespeare called it “baleful mistletoe”, in reference to a Scandinavian legend in which the god of Peace was slain with an arrow of mistletoe. At the request of his fellow deities he was restored to life, after which the plant was placed under the care of the goddess of love and it was ordained that all who passed under it should receive a kiss to acknowledge its change in status.

    That’s just too tidy an explanation, and I prefer your sticky, gooey one, Kym. Too bad Shakespeare didn’t have that to work with…. Indie and Ernie, I’m with you on the dead tree thing. Although we have plenty of fir to thin out up here, I prefer honoring a live tree. We’ve had the same one for years, and it’s like part of the family in December.

    Love the snow, too! I hear there’s some of the real stuff coming soon…

  • Maybe it’ll snow this weekend… it’s going to freeze tonight… Kym, this has to be one of your classics. Kristabel indicates that Fortuna is a bit wilder than I thought. S.C…. Let’s tell Blackie Adams stories (my ex wife once dressed Blackie as a nun for Halloween) I use to try to cook up money making schemes and one was the mistletoe business. But how to get it down? I don’t like heights and a shotgun seems destructive of the product and the shells are an added expense. When I was a kid in LA, people would come around selling mistletoe door to door. The girls seemed to avoid the doorways where I was lurking.

  • Yes, I will leave the mistletoe in the woods, and also the trees. Mostly because I am allergic to evergreens in the house for some reason. But I think a nice pre-lit tree is going to come my way soon.

  • great pic, and excellent research!

  • I first met Blackie in ’69. Picking the huckleberry brush. I once, say in ’70. went to the Branding Iron, where they weren’t exactly user friendly to Hippies, where I was to meet Blackie. I walked in and sat at the bar next to Blackie and the place went silent. Blackie straightened his back and said, “Doug here ain’t a Hippie, he’s a long hair”. There were a few chuckles and everybody turned back to their beers. Your turn Ben.

  • I was thinking that such a well known character as Blackie Adams might be featured somewhere on the net but when I checked there were several pages of Blackie Adams but none seemed right.

  • Blackie was a true character. He came here during the dust bowl, logged, ran a still, picked huckleberry brush and lord knows what else (actually I know a few of these, but later). Some Ziegfeld girls (Ziegfeld was the legendary ’30s showman of Follies fame) were staying at that local Hollywood haunt, the Benbow Inn, and by hook or crook Blackie met one called Delores. One day her entourage left in their Stutz-bearcat (sp?), and Blackie was going to have none of that. He drove to LA and “kidnapped” her, brought her back to So.Hum. and talked her into marrying him. Had they not stayed consistent in their retelling of the story for over the 20 years I knew them, embellishing with humorous detailed antidotes upon many an occasion, I might have thought it a fabrication…… Now, Delores, she’s another story.

    Blackie, it does not surprise me that he’s not traceable on Google or such. He was of a different pre data storage era and flew as far under the radar as he could manage. His wink could tell you that.

  • That is a good story. I didn’t know that. I barely knew him. Although, I remember being in the bar with him (the Blue Room I think) and him keeping me and few others laughing for awhile. I know his daughter, Tina. I went to school with her and we were telephone operators together. She’s great.

  • Do you know Tina’s story?

  • Probably not all of it. She always impressed me though.

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