Take on Nature: Hanging mistletoe a tame remnant of dramatic druidic ritual

With its peculiar parasitic lifestyle, mistletoe is surely one of the most curious plants associated with Christmas

HAVING just stepped into December, it's almost impossible to hold off any longer our inevitable engagement with Christmas and the festive period, whether desired or not.

As with so many religious festivals and significant calendar events, elements of our natural world are intricately linked to this time of year. Viscum album, with its peculiar parasitic lifestyle, is surely one of the most curious plants associated with Christmas.

Mistletoe appears as a yellowish ball high up in trees only after the host tree has lost all its leaves. Its bright green leaves and luminous sticky white berries stand out in the dead of winter as its twigs branch out into little sprigs. It grows as a parasite on deciduous trees such as apple, poplar and hawthorn, with the mistle thrush in particular responsible for distributing the seed to new host plants – hence the bird's name.

The berries and seeds are distinctly sticky, reflected in the Latin, Viscum album – ‘white sticky stuff' and cling easily to branches, quickly sending out sucker rootlets which penetrate the bark of the host tree and use its sap for nutrients and water.

Throughout the world, mistletoe decorates homes at Christmas and is used specifically to promote romance in the household. Peter Wyse Jackson (Ireland's Generous Nature, 2014) lists mistletoe as a ‘love charm' and Lady Wilde, Irish poet and mother of playwright Oscar Wilde, wrote that ‘love powders and charms to procure affection were frequently used in Ireland. The bardic legends have frequent allusions to love charms'. (Ancient Cures, Charms and Usages of Ireland, 1890).

Though such associations were believed to have originated in Britain, where mistletoe is a native, naturalisation of the plant in Ireland led to similar romantic links here. Rare in the wild, it has naturalised on many trees in the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin.

On New Year's Eve in some places in Ireland, girls put a sprig of mistletoe under their pillow to bring dreams of their future husbands. Traditionally the hanging of mistletoe was done to protect the house from witchcraft and evil spirits. The Roman naturalist Pliny (AD 23-79) noted the Gaulish druids regarded "the mistletoe and the tree that bears it'' as sacred, having all healing properties, and that they administered it as an antidote to all poisons.

He detailed the ceremonial cutting of the plant by druids on the sixth day after the new moon following autumn, when a priest dressed in white robes climbed the tree and cut the mistletoe with ‘a golden sickle'. Utmost care was taken to prevent it from touching the ground, so others were present to receive it. Two white bulls were slaughtered and sacrificed on the holy occasion.

Pliny also wrote: "They believe that the mistletoe, taken in drink, imparts fecundity to barren animals."

The Irish names for mistletoe, ‘drualus' – druid's herb and ‘sú darach' – juice of the oak, indicate that the connection between the plant and the druids was well known in Ireland for some time. Mistletoe is also regarded as a medicinal plant used to sooth nerves and act as a treatment for epilepsy in parts of Ireland.

The resin Viscin from mistletoe can be transformed and used as a birdlime, an adhesive substance, illegal in most countries of the world, which traps wild birds, sticking them to the perch on which they land and preventing their escape.

Although today's custom of hanging mistletoe at Christmas is a tame remnant of that dramatic druidic ritual of the sacred cutting, it still represents an important link with the activities of our ancient forebears.

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