Michael Ellis: Mistletoe

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Mistletoe is a holiday tradition but its origins as a seasonal rite may surprise you. Michael Ellis has a Perspective.

Plants power our lives. We, of course, require them for our daily sustenance. Humans have always depended on trees, palm fronds, grass, and tules for shelter. We weave cotton and flax into clothing. And in our modern world we regularly ingest plants that slightly or even heavily poison us.

One of the strongest human urges is to shift our perception of reality. We grind and roll up leaves and smoke them for pleasure. We eat fetid fungi erupting from the rotting ground for powerful hallucinogen experiences. And some bread molds have gifted us LSD. But by far one of the most widespread methods to alter our reality is drinking a beverage made from rotting fruit and vegetables - wine, beer and alcohol. Fermented juices play a central role in many rituals football games, holiday dinners, rock n' roll, dancing and Holy Communion. Pretty odd combination when you think about it.

Thousands of years ago one of the most sacred plant in Europe wasn't the grape but mistletoe. The legends and myths of this plant abound. The power associated with this hemiparasite shrub makes sense. Imagine a cold bleak winter, no leaves on any tree, and apparent death throughout the land. There, vibrant and alive, was the mistletoe, not only green but bearing fruit.

Mistletoe was thought to be holy light that came directly from the gods via lightning bolts. It generally grew on apples, willows, cottonwoods but rarely on oaks. The Druids, the priestly class of the Celts, considered oak trees sacred and oak trees with mistletoe were doubly sacred. At the winter solstice white robed priests would cut the plants and then later channel that innate vitality into fertility rites. Our modern tradition of kissing of the mistletoe is nothing compared to what our ancient forebears did and they didn’t even have to ingest it.


Plants are indeed potent. I’ll drink to that and happy holy days.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Michael Ellis is a naturalist. He lives in Santa Rosa.