Mistletoes progressed the capability to prosper not on the root of trees, however instead on your branches. Frankie angel / Alamy

Baldur, nephew of the vikings god Thor, woke up one morning details that each and also every plant and animal on earth wanted to kill him. His mother consoled him. His mam consoled him, yet all to no avail. As Baldur cowered in his room, half-wild with fear, his mother and wife made decision to asking every living point to leaving their negative Baldur in peace. They begged the quality of the oak tree, the pig, the cow, the crow, the ant and also even the worm. Each agreed. Then, together Baldur paused to celebrate his relax from torment, he felt a pain in his chest. He had actually been stabbed and killed by an arrow made from the timber of a mistletoe plant. Mistletoe was the one varieties on earth his wife and also mother had actually failed come notice.

You are watching: How did mistletoe become a christmas tradition

Baldur died, yet a lesson was learned: never ever forget around the mistletoe. Mistletoe would involved hang over our doors together a reminder to never forget. Us kiss beneath it come remember what Baldur’s wife and also mother forgot. At least that is one version of the origin of our relationship with mistletoe.

Another story begins with druids who viewed the mistletoe together magical and also hung it over their doors for luck. Rather say the is hung because that fertility; the seed of mistletoe space sticky favor semen. The contemporary story of mistletoe is among kisses. Together Washington Irving wrote in the 1800s, “young men have actually the privilege that kissing the girls under , plucking each time a berry native the bush. When the berries space all plucked the privilege ceases."

The true story of mistletoe is the one i am going come tell here, the one of exactly how it evolved in the an initial place, to cave on trees (and eventually over our doors). The ancestor of all mistletoes is the most old sandalwood. Modern-day sandalwoods include the species burned as incense on college campuses and also in religious ceremonies the civilization over. Sandalwood trees are parasites; they grow on and steal from various other trees. Their devoted roots (haustoria) sink like small arrows or spears into the roots of bigger trees and suck water, sugar and also nutrients from them.

Before there to be forests, wispy plants fell on each various other in their struggle to reach the sun, prefer clumsy teenagers unsure that their farming bodies. Then one plant progressed a simple woody stem. It might grow taller than the other plants, and also it stole light from them. The poisoned them v shade. Battles ensued that have lasted numerous millions that years. Trees of countless kinds arose and also struggled v each other to it is in taller. Any types that walk not get involved in battle loses out in the darkness the the understory—any varieties except a few. Those in the clan that the sandalwood evolved a means out of the darkness. They endured by stealing indigenous the trees what they had actually spent your tall tribe fighting for.

Sandalwood discovered deceit. Its root kissed the root of trees and also slipped within them come steal. Yet sandalwood still needed to flourish up a tiny and put out a few green pipeline to have sufficient sugar to thrive. And then come mistletoes. Mistletoe is a usual name for several independent lineages descended from sandalwood. Like their ancestors, mistletoe species sink their roots right into trees. Unlike those ancestors, they perform so in the sky.

Mistletoes advanced the capability to prosper not top top the root of trees, but instead on their branches. In act so, they obtained the same nutrients, water and sugars steal by your ancestors, but they also gained a foothold up right into the sky. Together trees clambered because that the sun, the mistletoe just rode increase on your branches, living turn off both the trees’ nutrients and also the energy mistletoe can gather itself from the sun. The transition from source parasite come parasite of shoots to be so successful that the capacity evolved 5 times native the ancestral stock the the sandalwoods. Mistletoe diversified and also spread roughly the world. Types of the genus Vismus are common in Europe. Phoradendron flavescens is common in north America. Thousands of other varieties are discovered elsewhere around the world. But while theirs to be a life through advantages, it likewise offered brand-new challenges. Amongst the challenges was just how to colonize trees in the an initial place. Unaided, the seeds of mistletoe would fall to the ground, can not to gain to branches. Chance and wind were not enough for the offspring the mistletoe come find new trees, yet the mistletoe had an ext than chance, it had natural selection. The mistletoe evolved seeds surrounding by berries. The berries attracted birds. The birds ate the berries and also then flew come find much more food. Together they flew, or far better yet, once they landed, lock pooped. If whatever went perfectly because that the mistletoe, the poop arrived at a branch wherein the seed could germinate.

Many much more seeds were excreted midair and landed top top the ground quite than onto branches, and also so any kind of seeds with extr advantages would have actually been much more successful. Therefore it was that an additional adaptation the the mistletoe evolved, its actual kiss: seed so difficult that also after passing through a bird they would certainly stick come its bottom and also then to its feet and also then come anything else. Once a bird pooped these seeds over a field, castle did no fall. They clung. Birds that ate mistletoe seeds had actually to uncover a ar to sit. They had actually to use their feet to gain the seeds off of your feathers and also scrape castle onto various other surfaces—like branches. So it is the mistletoe seeds today space passed with relatively high frequency to new trees.

The kiss that the mistletoe is the kiss the seeds v a bird, of those very same seeds onto bare branches, and of roots slipping into tree branches and also shoots. It is additionally the kiss of the leaves of the mistletoe, pipeline that rise over all others through subterfuge. In a way, the mistletoe reminds us of days gone by, when there were no trees, and plants could simply grow short and stout and also still find enough sun. Mistletoe quiet does so, just on its own elevated plane.

And for this reason while there are historical explanations for why humans tend come kiss under mistletoe—a history of gods, demons, luck and a small lust—the evolution story of these plants through their difficult fruits and also parasitic means is more interesting. If this evolutionary story has actually a moral, it is complicated. On the one hand, mistletoe is a fruit that war, albeit one amongst trees. Let’s disregard that symbolism though, everything it could mean for the holiday season. Top top the other hand, mistletoe is a measure up of how numerous of the fruit in our everyday lives, it is in they literal meaning or figurative, rely on various other species. We depend on the mistletoe for tradition. And it depends on that tree and also its bird, just as we count on thousands of varieties ourselves, types like the warring trees and also the pooping birds, but likewise our crops, our Christmas trees and so many more, each of which evolved amongst evolution’s wild do the efforts to rotate nonlife—sun, soil, water and air—into life. I will pucker mine lips to that, come the means evolution clings to united state as beautifully as the kiss that a difficult seed.

See more: Homeopathic Remedy For Fleas On Dogs, Our Top Home Remedies For Fleas

Rob Dunn is a biologist at phibìc Carolina State University and also the writer of The Wild Life of ours Bodies. He has written for Smithsonian about our ancestors’ predators, singing mice and the discovery the the hamster.