Q: What is the history behind mistletoe? - Carrie, Highland

A: Mistletoe is a very popular plant during the Christmas holidays, but why? The Vikings and the Druids each have separate legends surrounding this unusual plant.

The Norse god Balder was the best loved of all the gods. His mother was Frigga, goddess of love and beauty. She loved her son so much that she wanted to make sure no harm would come to him. So she went through the world, securing promises from everything that sprang from the four elements that they would not harm Balder.

But Loki, a sly, evil spirit, found the loophole, and the loophole was mistletoe. Mistletoe appears to grow without roots or nourishment. He made an arrow from its wood. He took the arrow to Hoder, Balder's brother, who was blind. Guiding Holder's hand, Loki directed the arrow at Balder's heart, and he fell dead. Frigga's tears became the mistletoe's white berries.

In the version of the story with a happy ending, Balder is restored to life, and Frigga is so grateful that she reverses the reputation of the offending plant by making it a symbol of love and promising to bestow a kiss upon anyone who passes under it.

Mistletoe was used by the Druid priesthood in a very special ceremony held five days after the new moon following winter solstice. The Druid priests would cut mistletoe from a holy oak tree with a golden sickle. The branches had to be caught before they touched the ground. Celts believed this parasitic plant held the soul of the host tree. The priest then divided the branches into many sprigs and distributed them to the people, who hung them over doorways as protection against thunder, lightning and other evils.

The folklore, and the magical powers of this plant, blossomed over the centuries. A sprig placed in a baby’s cradle would protect the child from faeries.

So it’s most likely a combination of the customs and the cultures became the tradition of the kiss under the mistletoe at Christmas.

Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grows high in the branches of hardwood trees. I have seen it in the swamp of the Altamaha River in coastal Georgia and was amazed at just how high it was. There are two species of mistletoe used at Christmas time, American (Phoradendron sp.) or European (Viscum album) mistletoe. Both are members of the Viscaceae plant family, while most tropical mistletoes belong to an entirely different plant family. American mistletoe is highly toxic.

Both types of mistletoe are evergreen plants with green oval-shaped leaves, white flowers, and whitish-pink berries. Despite its plant-like appearance, mistletoe is in fact a hemi-parasite. Mistletoe does contain some chlorophyll and can photosynthesize most of its own nutrients, but siphons off certain nutrients and water from its host plant. Mistletoe can grow on more than 100 different shade trees and evergreens, including ash, birch, cherry, elm, maple, oak, sycamore, walnut, willow, cypress and juniper.

Mistletoe is spread by birds, which eat the berries and then excrete the seeds. When a seed makes contact with a branch on the potential host, it begins to develop a pseudo-root system that burrows into the host plant, usually the branch of a large tree.

Cultivation of American or European mistletoe is usually not very successful. American mistletoe is considered a pest and extremely undesirable. Multiple mistletoe infections, as they are called, will eventually kill the host plant.

Q: Are poinsettias poisonous? - Tara, New Paltz

A: The mature poinsettia plant exudes white milk similar to that of genuinely toxic euphorbias, which would tend to increase the belief in this myth once it got started. Yet there is not one case on record of poinsettias injuring pets or people. Nevertheless, some people, confronted with the evidence that their lifelong belief in poinsettia toxicity is incorrect, continue to justify their fears on the basis of allergic reactions to the latex.

But the caustic potential of poinsettia latex is about the same as for that of a dandelion. Rash or contact dermatitis can occur with geraniums, English ivy, tulips, daffodils, asters, chrysanthemums, lilacs, magnolias, cedar sawdust or wood chips, and all manner of plant life. Even such widely eaten plants as carrots, garlic, parsnips, onions, tomatoes, ginger and celery can cause contact dermatitis in some individuals. Very sensitive individuals allergic to many such things should handle all plants with extra care.

For example, according to Poisindex, the national information center for poison control centers, a 50-pound child would have to ingest 500-600 poinsettia bracts (leaves) to exceed the experiment doses that found no toxicity in the OSU study — doses that are far greater than those likely to occur in a home environment. Even at this high level, no toxicity was demonstrated.

The Ohio research has been duplicated by other institutes because of the persistence of the belief, and the results are always the same. A study by the Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh & Carnegie Mellon University found that out of 22,793 poinsettia exposures in the American Association of Poison Control Centers database, not one case of toxicity was present.

In 1996, Dr. Edward Krenzelok, director of Pittsburgh Poison Center, analyzed data on 850,000 poinsettia exposure reports in the database of the American Association of Poison Control Centers, finding not one case of authentic poisoning. It is extremely hard for children to successfully swallow the leaves because they taste so bad, but in that enormous database were 92 cases involving children ingesting substantial quantities of poinsettias, inducing very worried parents to contact poison centers. Not one of these cases resulted in even slightly harmful effects. That said, it’s wise to discourage the ingestion of ornamental house plants by anyone. Look at them, don’t eat them! 

Dona M. Crawford is the Master Gardener coordinator for Cornell Cooperative Extension Ulster County.