Mistletoe and Holly During the Holidays

Using mistletoe and holly as decoration during the holidays is a long-standing tradition.  These classic evergreen plants are not commonly grown or found in Iowa, but their use and traditions around the holiday season make them familiar plants.  Learn more about these interesting plants and the traditions and folklore that surround them.

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What is Misteltoe?

Mistletoe is a semi-parasitic plant with leathery, evergreen leaves and small, white berries. Mistletoe plants manufacture their own food, but obtain water and mineral nutrients from a host plant. Mistletoe obtains water and nutrients via root-like haustoria that grow into the host plant’s water-conducting tissue stealing water and minerals from the host tree.

Mistletoe can grow on hundreds of kinds of trees, both deciduous and evergreen. An infected tree may be significantly weakened, and may even die if many mistletoes infect it simultaneously. During dry conditions, most trees adjust so that they use less water; but mistletoes make no such adjustments, so they are especially stressful to trees during droughts. Luckily, only one species of mistletoe grows in Iowa, and only in the southern counties, on walnut trees. Many more species of mistletoe live in the southern US, where it is a serious problem for foresters.

There are about 1500 species of mistletoe worldwide, but the one we usually buy for a holiday decoration is American mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum).  (Phoradendron is derived from Greek and literally means “thief of the tree.”) American mistletoe can be found growing in deciduous trees from New Jersey and southern Indiana southward to Florida and Texas. It is the state floral emblem of Oklahoma. Mistletoe sold during the holiday season is gathered in the wild. Most mistletoe is harvested in Oklahoma and Texas, where it is naturally abundant on a variety of trees.Mistletoe photo by Adobe Stock

Mistletoe Berries are Poisonous

This plant has waxy, white berries. Because those berries are poisonous, they are often replaced with fake berries before sale. Individuals using mistletoe during the holiday season should keep the sprigs out of the reach of children and pets.  Mistletoe berries are readily eaten by birds. The birds digest the pulp of the berries and excrete the seeds. The sticky seeds stick to the branches of trees. At germination, the mistletoe seedling develops haustoria that grow through the bark of the tree and into its water-conducting tissue.  

Traditions, Folklore, and Historic Uses for Mistletoe

Using mistletoe in Christmas decorations is a survival of the Druid and other pre-Christian traditions. Mistletoe is one of the most sacred plants in European folklore. It was once considered a bestower of life and fertility. A good mistletoe crop foretold Welsh farmers a good crop for the upcoming season. Mistletoe was also thought to help individuals who had problems bearing children.

Mistletoe Was Used to Ward Off Evil, Provide Good Luck, Improve Fertility, and as a Medicine

Mistletoe has long been a symbol with both magical powers and medical properties. Mistletoe from sacred oaks was especially precious to ancient Celtic Druids. It was gathered at both mid-summer and winter solstices for indoor decoration. Mistletoe was so sacred to the Druids that if two enemies were to meet under it, they had to lay down their weapons and observe a truce until the following day.

There are many other varied traditions associated with mistletoe. It was used to ward off evil spirits and prevent the entrance of witches during the Middle Ages. It was thought to bring good luck to the entire herd of cattle when given to the first cow that calved in the New Year. At one time people thought mistletoe could extinguish fire. It was considered a protectant against poison (although the berries are considered poisonous themselves) and an aphrodisiac. It has been historically used as a treatment for pleurisy, gout, epilepsy, and rabies.

Origins of the Common Name

The name mistletoe came from a mistake made long ago. In ancient times it was observed that mistletoe would often arise on tree branches where birds had left droppings. This led to the belief that mistletoe was propagated from bird droppings. "Mistel" is the Ango-Saxon word for "dung" and "tan" is the word for "twig". Hence, mistletoe means "dung-on-a-twig". It was later found that mistletoe was propagated by seeds instead of spontaneously arising from dung.

Kissing Under the Mistletoe

The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe began in England. It was believed that kissing under the mistletoe increased the possibility of marriage in the upcoming year. After every kiss, a berry was removed from the bunch and discarded. When the berries were gone, the kissing would stop. Needless to say, plentiful bunches were sought for holiday festivities.


What is Holly?

American holly (Ilex opaca) and English holly (Ilex aquifolium) are prized for their glossy, green leaves and brightly colored fruit. Sprigs of both hollies are often used in wreaths, centerpieces, and other Christmas decorations.

Hollies are dioecious. Dioecious plant species produce male and female flowers on separate plants. The flowers on male plants produce pollen. Female flowers develop into fruit when properly pollinated.  

Only female holly plants produce attractive, berry-like fruit. When planting hollies, a male cultivar must be planted in the same general area as the female hollies for pollination and fruit set. One male plant is usually adequate for several female plants.Holly in wreath photo by Adobe Stock

Growing Holly in Iowa

While American and English holly are most frequently used for holiday decor, unfortunately, they are not reliably hardy in Iowa. However, winterberry (Ilex verticillata) and Meserve hybrid hollies (Ilex × meserveae) can be successfully grown in the state.  While most hollies are evergreen, winterberry is deciduous (loses all of its leaves in fall). Winterberry grows 6 to 10 feet tall. The fruit on female plants turns bright red in fall and persists into winter. (Birds usually devour the fruit by mid-winter.) Excellent fruiting varieties include ‘Sparkleberry,’ ‘Winter Red,’ ‘Afterglow,’ and ‘Red Sprite.’ ‘Jim Dandy’ is a good pollinator for ‘Afterglow’ and ‘Red Sprite.’ ‘Southern Gentleman’ pollinates ‘Winter Red’ and ‘Sparkleberry.’ Winterberry performs best in moist, acidic soils. Plants can be grown in partial shade to full sun. Best fruiting occurs in those areas that receive at least six hours of sun.  

Meserve hybrid hollies are evergreens. ‘Blue Prince,’ ‘Blue Princess,’ ‘Blue Boy’ and ‘Blue Girl’ have dark, bluish-green foliage and are often referred to as blue hollies. The female varieties have colorful red fruit. Other attractive Meserve hybrids include China Boy®, China Girl®, Castle Spire® (female), and Castle Wall® (male). Occasionally you can find shrubs with both male and female plants planted next to each and allowed to intertwine and grown together.  Planting these containerized shrubs means you will get fuit on each plant - although portions of the plant (the male portions) will not have fruit.  Meserve hollies are variable in height. Most varieties grow 5 to 10 feet tall. They are hardy to -20°F (USDA Hardiness Zone 5). In Iowa, Meserve hollies perform best in the southern half of the state. Meserve hollies are susceptible to desiccation injury from the sun and dry winds in winter. When selecting a planting site, choose a protected location, such as on the east side of a building.

Traditions and Folklore of Holly at the Holidays

Holly was considered sacred by the ancient Romans. Holly was used to honor Saturn, god of agriculture, during their Saturnalia festival held during the winter solstice. The Romans gave one another holly wreaths, carried it in processions, and decked images of Saturn with it. During the early years of the Christian religion in Rome, many Christians continued to deck their homes with holly to avoid detection and persecution by Roman authorities. Gradually, holly became a symbol of Christmas as Christianity became the dominant religion of the empire.

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Last reviewed:
November 2022