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A kiss in time--A sense of herbs

December 23, 2002|by Dorry Baird Norris

From the time of the Druids to the present day, mistletoe has been thought to be a magical twig. The Celtic druids and the ancient Romans believed that for it to retain its magic mistletoe had to be gathered from atop its tree host, preferably an oak, by a priest wielding a golden sickle. The falling cuttings then had to be caught before they touched the ground.

Mistletoe was thought to render poisons harmless, to foster fertility in men and banish evil spirits. Druid youths were dispatched around the countryside carrying sprigs of mistletoe to announce the new year.

When we lived in Tennessee, I was delighted to discover mistletoe growing in profusion on the tattered black walnut in our front yard. Having neither a druid nor a golden sickle handy, I acceded gratefully to my neighbor's offer to harvest it by the standard local method - a carefully aimed rifle. Noisy but effective.

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Scandinavians consider mistletoe the plant of peace. When Balder, the god of peace, was slain with a mistletoe arrow, his mother, Frigga - wife of Odin and goddess of married life, clouds, and all growing things - shed tears of sorrow.

"So on the floor lay Balder dead,

In his breast stood fixt the fatal bough

Of mistletoe, which Lok the accuser gave

To Hoder, and unwitting holder threw:

Gainst that alone had Balder's life no charm."

When Balder was brought back to life, Frigga's tears of joy were transformed into the white berries of the mistletoe. After this, the plant was given over to the protection of the goddess of love and declared a symbol of peace and love.

This legend is a re-telling of the winter solstice story - the tug of war between light and dark, between summer and winter.

In past ages, mistletoe was deemed a cure-all. Nicholas Culpepper in 1652 declared it good for the "grief of the sinew, itch, sores and toothache." Swedes considered a finger ring of mistletoe wood was an antidote for all illness.

Today if you buy mistletoe you are likely to get a bit of the plant dyed an unnatural deep green and sporting white plastic berries. If you are unfamiliar with real, fresh mistletoe this description from "Gerard's Herbal" (1597) may be useful:

"Mistletoe hath many slender branches spread overthwart one within another the bark which is of a light green or Popinjay color: the leaves of this branching excrescence be of browne greene colour: the flores be final and yellow: which being past, there appeare small clusters of white translucent berries which are so cleare that a man may see through them, and are full of clammy or viscous moisture."

Mistletoe - European mistletoe is Viscum album and American mistletoe is Phoradendron flavescens - lives on deciduous trees that have rough bark and is propagated when the berries lodge in the crevises of the branches. Because the plant could not grow on the ground the ancients thought it was in some way an excrescence of the tree itself, like sap.

This phenomenon may be the reason that mistletoe was thought to be the life essence: a divine substance. In early days, the fact that it is a parasite was little understood. Indeed, many believed that the white berries were merely bird lime or dung. That it fruits in the wintertime suggested to some that this is truly the symbol of life and rebirth at the winter solstice.

Today this ancient plant serves to offer encouragemnt to the shy person hoping to steal a kiss. Kiss your beloved beneath the mistletoe and your love will last forever.

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