It’s the start of December! Advent calendars are flying open, decorations are going up and festive wreaths are getting stuck up on doors all over the place. You may have noticed those little sharp leafed leaves with the red berries on the wreathes, cards and other decorations of the seasons Generally, these depict the holly plant, but some people mistakenly think it is mistletoe, another prominent winter plant.
Many people mistakenly think that holly and mistletoe are the same thing. Holly is an evergreen tree that grows up to 25 meters in height. It is dioecious which means that entire trees are either male or female. While only the female trees produce fruit, in order to get the red berries well known from Christmas cards, the two sexes must be grown together in order for fertilization to occur.
Mistletoe by contrast is the common name for a range of parasitic plants that attach themselves to trees for sustenance and shelter. The most common variety in the UK is Viscum Album and is especially prolific in the south west and midlands region of the country where it’s favourite hosts, apple trees, can be found in abundance. The plant can be found across Europe and other members of its order Santalales can be found across Asia, Africa and the Americas. Mistletoe also has yellow/white berries which typically means that the plants you see on the cards and decorations aren't it.
Traditions and Uses
The festive tradition and association of both plants with the Christmas season is largely to do with the evergreen nature of both plants. In European winter, when most plants have lost their leaves through the cold winter months, the continued greenery and colour embodied by both plants became a symbol of life continuing despite the harshness of the season.
That said, Mistletoe has traditionally had something of a love/hate relationship with the season. Of the various traditions brought over from the pagan cultures that proceeded the Christian Christmas in Europe Mistletoe was generally disfavoured by the church. This is because of the prominent place that mistletoe played in earlier cultures. Ancient druids, it is recorded, regarded it as a holy plant and a source of medicine while other cultures such as the Greeks and Romans and Norse had their own myths.
Nevertheless, it was during the Victorian era when the well known tradition of kissing under the mistletoe came to prominence. The idea stated that a man of any station could kiss any woman of any station under it, and that it was bad luck for the woman to refuse the kiss. Typically, one was expected to remove a berry from the Mistletoe for each kiss taken and once all the berries were gone the kissing had to stop.
As for Holly, it remains ever popular as a Christmas decoration. But be careful about using the real thing in your festive displays! The plant, especially it’s berries are toxic and can be poisonous to children and pets that might be tempted to eat them. So keep them out of reach of inquisitive mouths or just get an authentic looking replica that little creatures won’t be tempted to eat.