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Is Holiday Mistletoe Really The “Kiss of Death”?
Posted on Monday, December 17, 2012 by eNature
Mistletoe lives in the canopies of host trees
Mistletoe lives in the canopies of host trees

Almost all of us have come across American Mistletoe, the white or green-berried parasitic plant hung in doorways during the holiday season to elicit kisses from those standing beneath it.

Reputed to be the “kiss of death,” Mistletoe (the Phoradendron species is found in North America) is said by some to be so poisonous that humans can be killed if they ingest the leaves or berries. 

This myth has been endlessly repeated throughout the years, reappearing every December in countless holiday safety reports on television and in print.

Is it true? Is American Mistletoe a holiday killer?

What The Research Says
Two physicians and researchers from Pittsburgh decided to find out. Dr. Edward P. Krenzelok of the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh) and Dr. Terry Jacobson from Carnegie Mellon University examined data from the American Association of Poison Control Centers and found 1,754 reports of mistletoe exposure over a seven-year span. Curiously, not only had no one died of mistletoe poisoning, in the overwhelming majority of the cases (approximately 90 percent), the patient experienced no effects at all.

Those patients who did have effects suffered only minor discomfort. Treatment at a poison control center or at home made no discernible difference in patients’ recovery or outcome. Most mistletoe ingestion is reported in children, often those under two, who finding a couple of berries or leaves that have dropped to the floor will put them in their mouths.

What To Do If You Ingest Mistletoe
Drs. Krenzelok and Jacobson found that most, if not all, exposure to Mistletoe was not dangerous.  That said, children who ingest the plant or its berries should be observed and treated for poisoning symptoms, such as nausea or diarrhea, at home if they do arise. They suggest that parents call their local poison control center and follow the advice given. The study did not indicate whether ingestion of large quantities of mistletoe might be more toxic, nor did it address the degree of exposure that might be toxic in pets (who might be inclined to eat a larger quantity than a child).

Causing at most only minor discomfort, American Mistletoe does not seem to have earned its reputation as the “kiss of death.” Its European cousin, Viscum album, sometimes used in herbal remedies, is more toxic, but is not sold commercially in North America and is thus rarely encountered.

A Bit More About Mistletoe
Mistletoe is an interesting plant— it’s a semi-parasitic shrub which grows on other trees. Although able to photosynthesize its own nutrients, mistletoe relies on its host for most of its nutrients. The plant draws its mineral and water needs, and some of its energy needs, from the host tree using a specialized root called a haustorium, which grows into the stem of the host.  The photo to left shows a typical mistletoe plant.

It’s also quite easy to harvest, provided you’re comfortable climbing trees.  Your editor and his high school friends funded many camping trips by harvesting mistletoe in the local woods and selling it to classmates during the Holidays!

And now that we know it’s safe to have around the house, go ahead and hang it from a convenient doorway.

Do you have any mistletoe stories to share?  We always enjoy hearing them



nice tidbit about mistletoe, good too know

Posted by gabe on 12/22

Sir, does mistletoe kill the host tree? We have large trees dead here that have this on them.
Thank you for your reply
Jo Coker

Posted by Jo Coker on 12/22

Living in a rural community in Colorado’s Teller County, mistletoe is very common. It is an ongoing effort to destroy the host by cutting the limb(s)off before it spreads to other trees.

I will pass along your information to others homeowners on the ranch.

Posted by Gail on 12/22

What kind of trees to look for and what states are they usually found in would help. Also, do they grow year round or are they frozen out in the north?

Posted by John Rhode on 12/22

When we have visited our daughter’s family in Oregon, they have shown us a growth in many of the trees that they refer to as “mistletoe” claiming it will eventually kill the trees. Is it really mistletoe, and if so, is it really capable of killing the trees? (They don’t appear to be harming them at all.)

Posted by Tom on 12/22

In my youth I also harvested and sold mistletoe over the holidays to raise funds for scout camp and Jr High programs….and although I had heard it was poisonous, I have never encountered any person or pet who has actually been “poisoned”. Many birds love it!! Thanks for the information.

Posted by Michael Marchiano on 12/22

It was reported in the Drudge Report this morning that mistletoe may be very helpful in the treatment of colon cancer.

Posted by Cecil Rives on 12/22

Does it kill the tree? Oaks in CA?

Posted by Walking Wanda on 12/22

Has the toxic material in mistletoe been identified?

Posted by Ed Whisler on 12/22

I would love to have some real Mistletoe instead of the plastic imatition sold in stores. Can someone help me?

Posted by Mary Lee Hoffman on 12/22

Every Christmas I collect a bunch of mistletoe for any of my friends who want it, and I don’t even have to climb to get it! There is so much on my grandparents farm that I just have to reach up and I can grab bunches of it. I live in Texas, so I don’t know if that has something to do with it…

Posted by LeeAnne on 12/22

So will it kill a large pine tree or weaken it making it more susceptible to wind/flooding? If that is the case we should remove it right? will just cutting the mistletoe remove it or will that “special root” help it grow right back?

Posted by Debbie on 12/22

Another myth busted. Hmmmm, sounds like a TV show.

Posted by J Brewer on 12/22

Found this article to be rather interesting!

Posted by Bev Strickland on 12/22

On a camel safari in Australia a few years ago, I discovered that camels LOVE to eat mistletoe.  When a camel spots a clump in a tree, it’s very hard to dissuade it from making a beeline for it.

Posted by Nancy Ball on 12/22

The lightbulb clicked for me today that half the problems I am facing right now wouldn’t have been problems if instead of diving into the most recent nonfiction best seller offering a promise of happiness from someone with that perfectly photo shopped white smile in a sharply tailored suite, I had simply allowed myself to share what I was feeling with the people share my life with. <a ></a> One early example of kinetic energy in fashion was with kinetic watches, which have ran off the movement of the human body since the 1980s.. <a ></a> Proof of the brand’s early success is seen as there are currently more than 100 Starmobile partner resellers located in Cebu’s main shopping locations. <a ></a> They there for a reason, and that usually to be made fun of. <a ></a> Using a small, very fine, bristled brush, gently brush around the claws, crevices and engravings on your rings.

Posted by pydauhw on 12/22

I live in South Texas, where the mistletoe is quite common on the local Mesquite trees. I understand that mistletoe is the food plant for the beautiful Great Purple Hairstreak butterfly, although I have never seen one of their caterpillars feeding on it.

Posted by George C. Toalson on 12/22

Mistletoe berries are also the main food of the Phainopepla, the only silky flycatcher bird that comes far enough north to ever be seen in they USA.  It’s a beautiful bird with a head crest, superficially resembling a Cardinal, but the male is glossy black (and the beak is a pointy flycatcher beak, not the Cardinal’s robust seedcracker).  They migrate north to follow the ripening berries where the mistletoe grows on mesquite trees.

Posted by Otter on 12/23

In response to the post wondering about mistletoe killing a tree: I have seen trees laden with mistletoe yet not die although it appears if a limb gets too infested it will die and break off, ridding itself of that section of the parasite.

Another way to harvest it is with a shotgun but that is not too efficient.

I wonder how a seed from it gets to another limb or tree.  Do birds that eat it do the delivery?

Posted by ejbpesca on 12/23

You can buy the real thing at most florists or green houses. Call Home Depot or where ever plants are sold and see if they carry it.
Before retiring, I worked at Vern Goers’ Greenhouses, Hinsdale, IL., and we sold it every Christmas season.

Posted by Kathleen Marasco on 12/23

No, mistletoe does not kill the tree it’s attached to. In fact, the fallen leaves of the mistletoe plant make an excellent mulch around the base of the tree, fertilizing it. In that way, it becomes more of a symbiotic relationship, rather than a parasitical one.

Posted by Melody on 12/23

I beg to differ with this study.  In 1966 we nearly lost my little sister to mistletoe poisoning.  She was 2-yrs old at the time, and she had eaten some of the berries that had fallen off the sprig of mistletoe {was purchased locally} to be used as decoration for a Christmas party later that night.  Within hours of ingestion, she became severely ill with vomiting and diarrhea and a high fever that spiked over 107.(F).  The poisoning symptoms basically mimicked meningitis, but lumbar puncture ruled-out meningitis, confirming the poisoning.  She spent several days in the hospital over Christmas, touch and go, and at one point the doctors gave up, said there was nothing more they could do for her.  If not for massive prayers, and one dedicated nurse who refused to give up trying to save her, it’s doubtful she would have survived.  Anyone with small children or pets should skip the mistletoe.  No kiss is worth the risks.

Posted by CeeCee in SoCal on 12/23

Mistletoe is a major killer of spruce trees in Alaska

Posted by Ray Steiger on 12/23

In Norse mythology it is the miserable weak mistletoe plant that Freya forgets to elicit a promise from. In consequence Loki attaches mistletoe to the arrow that is shot at the supposedly impervious Baldur, the god of life and spring. The mistletoe strikes him dead and winter is born.

Posted by Marc Severson on 12/23

A water oak in my former Georgia neighborhood was so laden with mistletoe that it looked green all winter, and it survived in that condition for the 20 years I was its neighbor, and presumably much longer than that.  I recall reading that indegenous Americans used it as a contraceptive, somewhat opposite to its use among the dominant people nowadays.

Posted by Prairie Dog on 12/23
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