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.