12/22/2014 04:39 pm ET Updated Dec 22, 2014

WTF Is Mistletoe, Anyway?

Remember when you found out Santa wasn't real, or when you were old enough to realize just how implausible it is for a reindeer to fly? Well, there's more: Mistletoe isn't exactly the romantic symbol of the holidays that you think it is.

Perhaps you already knew this. But if you didn't (or if you missed writer Robb Dunn's in-depth report on the evolution of the Christmas tradition), here's the gist:

While there are historical explanations for why humans tend to kiss under mistletoe—a history of gods, demons, luck and a little lust—the evolutionary story of these plants with their sticky fruits and parasitic ways is more interesting. If this evolutionary story has a moral, it is complicated. On the one hand, mistletoe is a fruit of war, albeit one among trees. Let’s ignore that symbolism though, whatever it might mean for the holiday season. On the other hand, mistletoe is a measure of how many of the fruits in our daily lives, be they literal or figurative, depend on other species. We depend on the mistletoe for tradition.

So there is something to be said about mistletoe as a holiday tradition, but what's the deal with its "parasitic ways" and why is this creepy-looking bush specifically associated with Christmas? We went to another expert, Sylvia Stone Orli, a botanist at the National Museum of Natural History for answers. Here's what she told us:

There are different types of mistletoe and they're related to sandalwood.
"The Old World genus of mistletoe is Viscum; the European mistletoe species is Viscum album. Viscum was originally thought to be distinct enough to merit its own family, Viscaceae, but recent genetic analysis has placed it in the family Santalaceae, the Sandalwood family. Another member of the Santalaceae family, Phoradendron leucocarpum, or eastern mistletoe, also belongs in the Santalaceae family. The two mistletoe species are similar to each other, but differ in leaf shape and berry cluster."

"Christmas mistletoe" originated in Europe.
"Mistletoe has a long history in Europe, and has long been part of the mythology that it can protect the population from harm by chasing away demons, heal wounds, cure epilepsy, prevent fire and a host of other magical powers that make it sacred. The widespread adoption of Christianity in Europe around the 3rd Century AD incorporated this veneration for mistletoe. As mistletoe came to represent fertility, kissing under a sprig of mistletoe became a tradition of Christmas, in addition to the tradition of burning the Yule log on Christmas Eve."

Mistletoe isn't only a winter plant...
"Mistletoe holds on to its leaves in the winter and has a yellow/green hue that make it striking again the gray background of its host. In addition, the berries tend to mature in early winter. Therefore it can be considered a winter plant, although it is no more of a winter plant than any other that retains its leaves in the cold months."

...In fact, it's found in many warm-weather climates as well.
"Phoradendron is most often found in the warm temperate and tropical regions of North and South America, including the Amazon rainforest. There are other species of Phoradendron in the United States – P. californicum, or desert mistletoe is found in Northern Mexico and the southern regions of Arizona, California and Nevada. This species has been used by native peoples for its fruit, possibly as a hallucinogen, but is also beloved by the phainopepla, the silky flycatcher."

Mistletoe berries are toxic... sometimes.
"My favorite fact about mistletoe is that although, hemiparasitic, it does not depend on the host for the output of its chlorophyll, but instead relies on the host as a water source. Therefore it does not kill the host unless the infestation is heavy. Here’s another fact: The species of the host can determine the toxicity and edibility of the mistletoe berries."

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