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Mistletoe and Holly 





Leaflet 24 




The Botanical Leaflets of Field Museum are designed to give 
brief, non-technical accounts of various features of plant life, especially 
with reference to the botanical exhibits in Field Museum, and of the 
local flora of the Chicago region. 


No. 1. Figs $ .10 

No. 2. The Coco Palm .10 

No. 3. Wheat 10 

No. 4. Cacao 10 

No. 5. A Fossil Flower 10 

No. 6. The Cannon-ball Tree 10 

No. 7. Spring Wild Flowers 25 

No. 8. Spring and Early Summer Wild Flowers . . .25 

No. 9. Summer Wild Flowers 25 

No. 10. Autumn Flowers and Fruits 25 

No. 11. Common Trees (second edition) 25 

No. 12. Poison Ivy (second edition) 15 

No. 13. Sugar and Sugar-making 25 

No. 14. Indian Corn 25 

No. 15. Spices and Condiments (second edition) ... .25 

No. 16. Fifty Common Plant Galls of the Chicago Area .25 

No. 17. Common Weeds 25 

No. 18. Common Mushrooms 50 

No. 19. Old-Fashioned Garden Flowers ...... .25 

No. 20. House Plants 35 

No. 21. Tea 25 

No. 22. Coffee - . ; . 25 

No. 23. Carnivorous Plants and "The Man-Eating Tree" .25 

No. 24. Mistletoe and Holly 25 



iHt LIBKMftr 



AMERICAN MISTLETOE (Phoradendron flavescens) 
About one-third natural size 


FSSC JAN4-1?40 



Field Museum of Natural History 

Chicago, 1939 

Leaflet Number 24 
Copyright 1939 by Field Museum op Natural History 


Since earliest historic time, supernatural powers 

have been ascribed to the mistletoe plant, in myth, 

legend, superstition, and religious practices. When 

Jupiter descended from Heaven, he resided, according 

to legend, in a mistletoe bush. Medea, the sorceress, 

gathered the sacred plants with a brass hook and used 

- the juice in magic potions. The records of the Persians, 

*=K the writings of the Greeks and Romans, the mythology 

^ of the Norsemen, and the religious practices of the Druids 

J bear witness to the awe in which the plant was held. 

These ancient people employed the mistletoe as a 

charm against all sorts of evils. Pliny says that a sprig 

^ of the plant was found useful in extinguishing fires. 

r» According to classical mythology, it assured safe conduct 

" into Hades; armed with the "golden branch," mortals 

could pass into Pluto's realm and if Charon interfered: 

* They showed the bough that lay beneath the vest; 

r* At once his rising wrath was hushed to rest. 

^ Since Balder, son of Odin, was deemed invulnerable, the 
^ other Norse gods amused themselves by shooting at 
. him. But an enemy prepared an arrow of mistletoe and 
<s^nduced the blind Hoder to shoot it at Balder, who fell 
^ dead the minute it struck him. 

-6 The medical virtues of the plant are mentioned at 

an early date. The ancient Persians knew it as a healing 

^ agent. Callimachus, writing in the third century B.C., 

•^ mentioned mistletoe under the name "panacea," sacred 

,j to Apollo: 

'^^^ Where'er the genial panacea falls. 

Health crowns the State and safety guards the walls 

2 Field Museum of Natural History 

Pliny commented on the virtues of the mistletoe berry 
as follows: Of an emollient nature, disperses tumours, 
acts as a desiccative upon scrofulus sores, combined 
with resin and wax it heals inflamed swellings, useful 
in the treatment of wounds, and most noteworthy as 
a cure for epilepsy, "falling sickness." Recently a drug 
which affects blood pressure has been extracted from 
mistletoe. Rubber has been obtained from some species. 

One of the most interesting and familiar phases of 
the history of mistletoe is that of its use by the Druids, 
the powerful religious order of the ancient Celts. The 
Druids studied the virtues of plants, and their discoveries 
and imagination led them to attribute divine power to 
certain ones. In his Natural History, Pliny says that the 
Druids "held nothing more sacred than the mistletoe 
and the tree that bears it." Its sanctity and mystery 
were increased by its rarity, and it was approached with 
reverence and solemnity. It was gathered on the fifth 
day of the new moon at the beginning of the year. 
When the time approached, the Druids summoned all 
people to assist in the collecting. In great proces- 
sion they marched to the tree, where sacrifices and re- 
ligious feasts were prepared. They led to the tree two 
white bulls, hitherto never yoked, their horns never 
before bound with ropes. The priest, clothed in white, 
ascended the tree and cut the mistletoe with a golden 
hook. The cut branches were placed in a white cloak 
because the plant would lose some of its magic if it touched 
the ground. After sacrifices to their god, the Druids 
made a potion from the mistletoe, for the prevention of 
sterility and as an antidote for poison. 

It is interesting to note that some of these ideas of 
ancient times have their analogies in modern European 
customs. In the Swiss canton of Aargau, the mistletoe 
is gathered by shooting it down with an arrow and catch- 
ing it with the left hand as it falls, for the plant must 
not touch the ground; it is cut only on the first, third, 

Mistletoe and Holly 3 

or fourth day before the new moon. In Sweden a similar 
superstition exists: if the mistletoe is to retain all its 
virtues it must be shot down out of the oak. As late 
as the early part of the nineteenth century this same 
precaution was observed in Wales. 

The magical virtues ascribed to the plant are varied 
and numerous. Swedish and Italian peasants hang 
bunches of mistletoe on the ceiling as a protection against 
harm, particularly against fire. In Bohemia, Switzer- 
land, and the Tyrol it is hung up as protection against 
lightning. In Sweden persons afflicted with epilepsy 
carry knives with handles made of oak-mistletoe, or 
wear rings of it on their fingers to ward off the attacks. 
In Germany a piece of mistletoe is hung around the 
neck for the same purpose. In France a decoction made 
by boiling mistletoe in water with rye flour was recom- 
mended for epilepsy. In England and Holland mistletoe 
was prescribed as a medicine as late as the eighteenth 
century. The Japanese valued it as a remedy for any 
disease. It is said that when the people of Senegambia 
go to war they carry leaves of mistletoe on their person 
as a charm against wounds. 

Most striking of the properties attributed to the 
mistletoe is its alleged virtue of producing fertihty in 
plants, animals, and human beings. In a certain region 
of Japan mistletoe leaves are cut into fine pieces and 
sown with millet or other seeds in the belief that this 
will make the gardens bear plentifully. In England 
small amounts of mistletoe are fed to animals to make 
them more proHfic. A similar belief as to the fecundating 
influence of mistletoe upon women is found in the folk- 
lore of many nations. It is told that on an island in 
Torres Strait the savages believe that twins will be born 
to the woman who touches or carries a piece of mistletoe. 

In various countries even today divining rods and 
omen sticks of mistletoe are carried by peasants to en- 
able them to see and speak with ghosts or to locate treas- 

4 Field Museum of Natural History 

ures. With the advent of Christianity among the Druid 
worshippers, churches were built in oak groves sacred to 
the old religion, or under a solitary oak, to predispose the 
minds of the converts to the new doctrine. But Christian 
priests in their attempts to wipe out such superstition 
forbade their followers to bring mistletoe into the churches. 
However, it is said that the mistletoe not only found its 
way into these churches, but was given a place over the 
altar and brought goodwill to mankind. 

The present-day custom of using mistletoe at Christ- 
mas time for decorative purposes seems to be a survival of 
mediaeval agricultural festivals celebrated during the 
winter and summer solstices, at which time mistletoe was 
gathered. At York, England, on Christmas Eve the mistle- 
toe was carried to the high altar of the Cathedral, and this 
ceremony was followed by a proclamation of universal 
freedom. This custom was probably a relic of the festi- 
vals, of which the Roman Saturnalia is a famous example. 
The festival of Saturn was a period of general license, 
during which vice and crime were indulged in to excess. 
The traditional custom of permitting men to kiss any 
woman standing beneath a sprig of mistletoe undoubtedly 
originated in such festivals. An article in The Country 
Magazine of 1792 refers to this custom as "without 
doubt the surest way to prove prolific." 


The name "mistletoe," which has been applied to 
this mysterious shrub for many centuries in Britain, 
is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word mistletan. Lin- 
naeus gave the plant the technical name Viscum album. 
This is the only European species; it is the mistletoe of 

The mistletoe family, known botanically as Loran- 
thaceae, comprises thirty genera and more than half a 
thousand species. All the members of this family have 
green or olive-brown foliage and are, at least partly, 

Mistletoe and Holly 6 

parasitic on evergreen and deciduous trees or shrubs. 
People who see the mistletoe only at Christmas time and 
have never seen it growing in nature cannot easily con- 
ceive of the idea that it is a parasite injurious to the 
tree upon which it grows and that in certain regions it 
becomes so abundant that its control and extermination 
are serious problems. 

Since the genera of mistletoe are too numerous to 
describe here, representative types have been selected. 


The favorite host of the common European mistle- 
toe, Viscum album, is the black poplar {Populus nigra)', 
upon this tree it flourishes most luxuriantly. Along the 
shore of the Baltic Sea, tufts of the plant measuring four 
meters in circumference have been found. In localities 
where the black poplar does not grow, the mistletoe may 
adapt itself to the tree most common in that particular 
country. In the Black Forest, mistletoe covers the tops 
of the silver firs, and in the Tyrol the same parasite 
causes trouble in apple orchards. Less frequently it 
has been found on walnut trees, elms, limes, willow, 
ashes, white thorns, pear trees, medlars, almond trees, 
and various species of mountain ash. Occasionally, by 
way of exception, this mistletoe may be found on oaks 
and old vines. The mistletoe used so extensively in 
England during the Christmas season is gathered in 
the apple orchards of Normandy and the orchards of 

Viscum album is an evergreen bush from one to four 
feet in height, crowded with forking branches. The 
leaves grow opposite each other or in whorls of three on 
the stems, and are yellow-green in color, about two 
inches long, and obovate-lanceolate in shape. The male 
and female flowers, borne on separate plants, appear 
in February and March. The berry, white when ripe, 
measures nearly half an inch in diameter and contains 

EUROPEAN MISTLETOE (yiscum album) 


Mistletoe and Holly 7 

a viscous semi-transparent pulp of which birdlime is 
made. This species, a native of Europe, is also found in 
temperate regions of Asia, and about twenty closely 
related species are found in other warm parts of the Old 

Viscum, the name of the genus, is the old Latin name 
used by Virgil and Pliny. 


PYom time to time botanical explorations have added 
numerous representatives to the mistletoe family. A 
species found in the Carolinas resembles the European 
mistletoe so much that it was at first named Viscum 
flavescens. However, specimens found later in Texas 
showed this species to be different enough to deserve 
the separate generic name Phoradendron, meaning "tree 
thief." This mistletoe was then named Phoradendron 
flavescens, and later became known as the American 

The common North American mistletoe is a parasitic 
shrub, bushy in appearance, varying from one to three 
feet in height. The stems are round, with branches 
arranged opposite each other. Nearly all the species 
have broadly ovate smooth green leaves. The yellow- 
ish hue of the mistletoe green is caused by a yellow pig- 
ment in the epidermal cells. The flowers are small and 
in short catkin-like spikes. The reduced leaves of a group 
of species in western North America, however, resem- 
ble short thin scales. These are so similar to those of 
the pine mistletoe described below that the two are often 

There are more than two hundred species of Phora- 
dendron in the western hemisphere. About eleven of 
these grow in North America, five of them in Texas. 
The genus is parasitic on various species of deciduous 
trees, especially on tupelo and red maple. Each species, 

PINE MISTLETOE (Areeulhobium diraricatum) 
Natural size 

Mistletoe and Holly 9 

however, seems to have a favorite host in the particular 
area where it is found. Phoradendron flavescens is found 
in a somewhat modified form from New Jersey through- 
out the South, northward through Missouri, and west- 
ward through Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona to 
the Pacific coast, A large western form, P. macrophyllum, 
which forms clumps from two to eight feet in diameter, 
grows chiefly on poplars and willows. A common species 
on the Pacific coast, P. villosum, occurs on oaks. The 
cypress mistletoe (P. Bolleana), with pearl-like berries, 
thrives on the cypress, and similarly the juniper mistletoe 
(P. juniperinum) on the juniper. 


The pine mistletoe of North America has the generic 
name of Arceuthobium. This is a small genus, with 
European and Asiatic species as well as the American, 
whereas the genera mentioned above are recognized as 
belonging only to the Old World or only to the New. 
Species of this genus, sometimes referred to as the "lesser" 
or "false" mistletoe, are parasitic on conifers. These 
species are smooth and have scale-like leaves. The 
flowers are solitary, or several may grow from the same 
axil, often crowded together into spikes; they open in 
the summer or autumn. The fruit matures during the 
autumn of the following year. When ripe, the berries 
burst suddenly and with great force eject the glutinous 
seed for several yards. 

The "false mistletoes" are of much greater importance 
in the West than in the East, where only one species is 
known to occur. Practically every Western conifer is 
subject to attack by mistletoe, but species of the pine 
mistletoe are particularly injurious to the timber trees: 
lodgepole pine, ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, larch, and 
hemlock. According to location and host, considerable 
variation in form occurs in these false mistletoes. On 

10 Field Museum of Natural History 

some trees they may be so inconspicuous that only the 
noticeable hypertrophy of the trunk or branches leads 
one to suspect the existence of the parasite. 


Tropical and subtropical mistletoes of the Old World 
belong mostly to Loranthus and related genera, com- 
prising about 750 species. The New World ones belong to 
the Phoradendron group, with some 300 species. Some of 
these are of great interest because of the size and beauty 
of their flowers, with tubular corollas to which the sta- 
mens are attached. The fruit, a many-seeded berry, 
contains a viscid pulp characteristic of other mistletoes. 
Some tropical species attain such size that they appear 
like small trees grafted upon other trees. Nuytsia flori- 
bunda, called the western Australian Christmas tree, 
is covered with reddish-yellow flowers at Christmas time. 
It attains a height of from six to thirty feet. The flowers 
of some of these species vary from four to eight inches 
in length and are vivid purple and orange in color. 
The host plants of this genus are mainly broad-leaved 
trees. However, species of Loranthus occur also as para- 
sites on one another. 


Among parasitic plants there exist partial and com- 
plete parasites. The mistletoes, with few exceptions, 
are partial parasites; that is, they do not depend entirely 
on the host for their nourishment. They contain abundant 
chlorophyll, the green coloring matter of plants, which 
with the aid of sunlight transforms inorganic compounds, 
such as carbon dioxide and water, into carbohydrate 
food materials. Because of this ability to manufacture 
food, the mistletoe requires only water and mineral nu- 
trients from its host. 

The degree of parasitism varies in the different species. 
Those with large leafy branches are not as dependent 
upon their hosts as the false or pine mistletoes, 

A TROPICAL MISTLETOE (Psittaeanthus dichroui) 
After Martius, Flora Brasiliensis, Vol. V. Plate 6 (1848) 


12 Field Museum op Natural History 

whose leaves are mere scales with a relatively small 
amount of chlorophyll. The mistletoe family as a whole 
shows a progressive development of parasitism and in- 
cludes at one extreme a non-parasitic tree, the Australian 
Nuytsia floribunda and at the other extreme a true para- 
site, Phrygilanthus aphyllus, growing upon a cactus of 
the genus Cereus in Chile. The completely parasitic 
plant has no foliage and lacks the characteristic shrubby 
habit of the mistletoe. 


When ripe the mistletoe berry contains a clear sticky 
sweet pulp in which the seeds are embedded. It is cov- 
ered by a tough, somewhat transparent skin and is resist- 
ant to drying. The berry is an article of food for many 
birds. In the vicinity of Austin, Texas, the principal 
birds which feed upon the berries are mocking birds, 
sparrows, and cardinals; the thrushes are particular dis- 
tributors of the seeds of the European mistletoe. The 
berries are eaten by the birds, and the undigested seeds 
are deposited, with the excrement, upon the branches of 
the trees, where they lodge in fissures of the bark and 
germinate if conditions are suitable. Also, because the 
seeds are sticky, they often adhere to the beaks and feet 
of birds. The bird, in an attempt to clean its beak, wipes 
it on the bark of the tree and deposits the seed with some 
pulp remaining on it, and the seed becomes cemented 
to the bark with this sticky substance. The presence 
of mistletoe in the tops of trees may be explained by the 
fact that birds in their flight from tree to tree usually 
perch on the uppermost branches. 

Birds, however, are not the sole distributors of the 
mistletoe seeds. As spring advances, the berries become 
softer and finally fall on the bark of the tree, where the 
pulp decays. They are often washed off by heavy rains 
and deposited on the branches below. This method of 
dissemination is noticeable in trees where the branches 

Mistletoe and Holly 13 

become covered from the base to the tip with mistletoe 
plants. Rodents that build nests in mistletoe brooms also 
play a minor role in the distribution of the seed. 


In the mistletoe and certain other Loranthaceae, a 
connection with the water-conducting system of the host 
is effected by the development of a specialized absorbing 
tissue. As the seed germinates, the axis (hypocotyl) of 
the embryo elongates and bursts the seed jacket. As 
soon as the axis becomes exposed to the air and sunlight, 
it bends downward. Its tip (the root tip) turns toward 
the branch and becomes broadened into a disc, which 
adheres to the branch as does that of the Boston ivy. 
In the center of the disc the cells multiply and enlarge 
in the form of a conical tissue (a specialized rootlet) 
which bores its way through the bark as far as the wood. 
The central part of this tissue then becomes differentiated 
into spiral ducts or vessels which are continuous with 
similar cells in the wood of the host. Thus is established 
a system for conducting water from the host into the 
mistletoe plant. 

Authorities disagree as to the process involved in 
the penetration of this specialized rootlet (sinker, haus- 
torium) into the bark of the host. The rootlet may force 
an entrance through fissures, lenticels, or other natural 
openings in the bark. On the other hand, some authorities 
claim that the rootlet secretes an enzyme which dissolves 
the walls of the cells in the bark. However, there is 
little evidence to show that the specialized rootlet can 
actually penetrate other than very tender tissues of the 
host plant. 

After the young mistletoe plant has established a 
connection with the host's system of water supply, the 
tiny first leaves (cotyledons) gradually emerge from the 
partly digested fleshy endosperm and seed coat, and 
become much enlarged. As a rule this completes the 

14 Field Museum of Natural History 

growth for the first year. The mistletoe may not grow 
more than a quarter of an inch in length during a season, 
the amount of growth depending upon the type of host 
and whether or not conditions are favorable for growth. 

During the second season there arise from the spe- 
cialized rootlet lateral branches (also called haustoria), 
that spread along and above the host stem and establish 
an extensive and permanent water supply system. If 
at any time, the mistletoe is injured or broken off, these 
lateral branches, which eventually cover the entire cir- 
cumference of the infected branch, give rise to new root- 
lets and also to new crops of shoots. This accounts for 
the persistence of mistletoe bushes on old branches and 
trunks of trees. 


As described above, the root of the seedling penetrates 
the bark of the host plant and establishes contact with 
the wood of the host stem. It does not penetrate the 
woody cylinder. As new wood forms in contact with the 
sinker, this root becomes enveloped and finally entirely 
covered, apparently sunken within the wood itself. In 
this way it becomes fixed within the woody cylinder, 
and although it does not push into the latter, it is banked 
year after year by new wood. This growth causes de- 
formities, known as burls, on the branches and trunks of 
trees. These burls are often very large and form the 
conspicuous barrel-like swellings common in some hosts. 
One of the trees most seriously affected by burls is the 
Western larch. The swellings give rise to the "witches' 
brooms" common on nearly all trees heavily infested with 
mistletoe. The abundance of food and water supply in 
burls gives rise to numerous shoots of mistletoe on the 
surface of the tree which in time assume the size of small 
shrubs and are known as "brooms." Brooms vary in 
size according to species and may become so large that 
during a heavy rainfall or snowstorm they break off and 

MISTLETOE (Loranthus »p.) 

A dried, leafless spedmen of a tropical species showing the parasite 

attached at several points on the host branch 


A gall-like deformation of the branch of a horse-radish tree {Moringa oleifera) 
infested by a tropical mistletoe (Phoradendron letrapteron) . The 
* cut stems of the parasite are distinguished by dark shading 


Mistletoe and Holly 17 

carry the host branch with them. At times, an accumula- 
tion of pine needles, lichens, and debris adds considerable 
weight and causes the brooms to break off, thus depriving 
the tree of its normal food supply. The terminal buds 
of trees store food materials for development the following 
season, and since the original point of infection of mistle- 
toes generally occurs upon small young branches, that 
part of the branch which lies beyond the point of im- 
mediate infection is starved. The formation of brooms 
and burls prevents, to a great extent, the storage of food 
in all parts of the tree above the point of infection. Such 
heavy infection in the trunk and branches of certain 
species of conifers results in the death of the upper part 
of the crown of the tree, a condition termed "staghead." 

As a result of the presence of the parasite and its inter- 
ference with their food supply the young shoots of the tree 
become stimulated to excessive and aberrant growth, caus- 
ing deformities of all sorts, which vary according to the 
species. However, the young infected trees may live in- 
definitely and grow into mature trees, without showing 
noticeable deformation. 

The age of a mistletoe plant is not easily determined. 
Plants of Phoradendron, approximately three feet tall, 
have been estimated to be at least twenty years old. 
Rootlets of the European mistletoe four inches long 
have been found enclosed in forty annual rings. A striking 
case has been noted where a cross-section through a burl 
showed that the mistletoe had lived in the host tissues 
for 340 years and could be traced to the original point of 
infection. The only fixed limit to the existence of the 
mistletoe seems to be the death of its host. Perhaps on 
the average the individual aerial parts do not survive 
longer than eight or ten years because they freeze or are 
broken off or otherwise damaged by mechanical agents. 

Injuries to the host such as the breaking off of branches 
or the exudation of excessive pitch from old burls expose 
the trees to dangers from other destructive agents. Old 

18 Field Museum op Natural History 

burls are invariably attacked by wood-boring beetles 
and fungi. Then, too, the broken brooms and branches 
at times litter the ground to such an extent that they 
become a fire hazard. Where parasites die and fall off 
old infected branches, there are often seen at the point 
of attachment the curious forms of wood structure known 
as wood roses. 


Sometimes the spread of mistletoe may be overcome 
by the watchful care of trees. Where the infection be- 
comes established the spread of the parasite may be 
controlled by pruning the mistletoe from the trees each 
year. Young branches may be cut off a few inches below 
the point of infection and burned; in this way the danger 
that the mistletoe may spread to other parts of the host 
and to other trees is removed. Control of this parasitic 
growth in large forests involves great expenditure. In 
the tropics, neglected cacao plantations are sometimes 
completely ruined by the rapid spread of mistletoe. 


The use of mistletoe for decorative purposes at Christ- 
mas time is more or less a universal custom. The North 
American supply is collected mainly in New Mexico and 
Oklahoma; smaller quantities come from Kentucky, 
Tennessee, and Arkansas. For commercial purposes, 
plants with numerous berries are preferred. They must 
be carefully crated to insure against freezing or breakage 
during shipment. The choicer branches, especially those 
of certain species, are handled by exclusive florists in 
the South and often command high prices. 

The mistletoe is usually shipped to market in crates 
or pasteboard boxes containing from twenty-five to fifty 
pounds each. The greatest markets are in England and the 
northern United States. It is estimated that the north- 
central states import from 15,000 to 20,000 pounds of 
mistletoe each Christmas season. 

Mistletoe and Holly 19 

It is not remarkable, if we consider the nature of 
the mistletoe plant, that curious beliefs and superstitions 
have grown up around it and have persisted from ancient 
times to the present, even in the remotest corners of the 
globe. A plant that grows and flourishes without roots 
or other direct contact with the earth may well have 
appeared to possess some supernatural powers and even 
to have been sent from heaven by the gods. The patient 
work of naturalists has destroyed the basis for these 
older beliefs and has substituted for them some scientific 
knowledge. However, as in so many of the phenomena 
of nature, the mistletoe of scientists is as remarkable in 
its way as the plant of legend and superstition which it 
has replaced. Yet even today, the age-old notions about 
this plant persist in communities remote from modern 
progress. Among cultivated people, superstitions of long 
ago still lurk in modified forms of old customs. 


Bailey, L. H. and Ethel Zoe 

Hortus, a Concise Dictionary of Gardening. 1930. 

Blumer, J. C. 

Mistletoe in the Southwest. In Plant World, vol. 13, No. 10, 
pp. 240-246, Oct., 1910. 

BoNwiCK, James 

Irish Druids, and Old Irish Religions. London, 1894. 

Borlase, William 

Antiquities, Historical & Monumental of the County of Cornwall, 
Consisting of Several Essays on the First Inhabitants, Druid 
Superstition. . . . Undated. 

Bray, William L. 

The Mistletoe Pest in the Southwest. U. S. Dept. of Agr., Bureau 
of Plant Industry, Bull. No. 166, Feb. 2, 1910. 

Coulter, J. M. and Nelson, A yen 

New Manual of Botany of the Coastal Rocky Mountains, p. 146, 

Da VIES, Edward 

The Mythology and Rites of the British Druids. London, 1809. 

Engelmann, George 
In Watson, S., Bot. Cal., vol. 2, p. 106, 1880. Geog. Sur. of Calif. 
Loranthaceae. In report upon the U. S. Geog. Surveys west of 
the 100th meridian, vol. 6, Botany, pp. 351-354, 1878. 

20 Field Museum of Natural History 

Frazer, Sir James George 

The Golden Bough, a study in magic and religion. 3rd ed., vols. 1-12, 
Macmillan and Co., 1913-15. 

Guerin, Ch. F. J. 

Germination et implantation du Gui. Viscum Album, Haarlem, 

Piper, Charles V. 

Contrib. of U. S. Nat. Herb., vol. 11, p. 222, 1906. 


The Natural History. Trans. John Bostock and H. J. Riley, vol. 
Ill, London, 1885. 

Trelease, William 

The Genus Phoradendron. Urbana, Illinois, 1916. 

Von Marilaun, Anton Kerner 

The Natural History of Plants. Trans. F. W. Oliver, New York, 

Weir, James R. 

Experimental Investigations on the Genus Razoumofskya. Bot. 

Gaz., vol. 66, No. 1, July, 1918. 
The Larch Mistletoe: Some Economic Considerations of Its In- 
jurious Effects. U. S. Dept. of Agr., Bull. 317, Jan., 1916. 
Mistletoe Injury to Conifers in the Northwest. U. S. Dept. of 

Agr., Bull. 360, June, 1916. 
Some Suggestions on the Control of Mistletoe in the National 

Forests of the Northwest. Forestry Quarterly, Dec, 1916. 
Razoumofskya Tsugensis in Alaska. Phytopathology, vol. V, 

No. 4, Aug., 1915. 
Effects of Mistletoe on Young Conifers. Jour, of Agr. Research, 

vol. 12, No. 11, March, 1918. 
New Hosts for Razoumofskya americana & R. occidentalis abietina. 

Phytopathology, vol. 7, No. 2, April, 1917. 

York, Harlan H. 

The Anatomy and Some of the Biological Aspects of the "American 
Mistletoe." Bull, of the Univ. of Texas, No. 120, March 15, 1909. 


The custom of decorating houses and churches with 
holly at Christmas probably originated in Rome, During 
the festival of the Saturnalia it was the custom to send 
holly boughs to friends, and as the festivals occurred in 
December, during the season when the oaks were bare of 
leaves, holly and evergreen boughs were used for decora- 
tions. There is no doubt that our practice of decorat- 
ing houses and churches with holly at Christmas came 
down to us from ancient pagan times and was absorbed 
and connected in the course of time with the Christian 
festival by the monks, who bestowed on the tree the 
name "holy tree." In Germany holly is known as "Christ- 
dorn," as it is believed that the crown placed on the head 
of Christ at the time of the Crucifixion was made of holly. 

According to an old English superstition, elves and 
fairies were allowed to join in the festivities at Christmas, 
as at this time they had no power to do harm. This 
led to the custom of hanging evergreen branches so that 
these spirits and fairies might hang in each leaf. Robert 
Herrick alludes to this superstition in Ceremony upon 
Candlemas Eve, as follows: 

Down with the Rosemary, and so 
Down with the Baies, and Mistletoe: 
Down with the Holly, Ivie, all. 
Wherewith ye drest the Christmas Hall: 
That so the suj)erstitous find 
No one least Branch there left behind: 
For look how many leaves there be 
Neglected there (Maids trust me) 
So many Goblins you shall see. 

De Gubernatis says that in certain parts of France, 
Switzerland, and Bologna the custom of hanging holly 
branches in houses and stables on Christmas Eve is 
followed, in the hope that the holly will drive away evil 
spirits and overpower witchcraft. 


22 Field Museum op Natural History 

Legends and superstitions of ancient times still persist 
with slight variations in different countries. In parts of 
Germany and England the prickly variety of holly is 
known as he-holly, and the smooth variety as she-holly, 
or boy and girl holly. In Derbyshire the holly brought 
into the house at Christmas time determines who is to 
be master. If the holly is smooth, the wife will dominate 
the household, but if the holly is prickly the husband 
will be master. The leaves of the she-holly are used for 
divining purposes and are collected with great ceremony. 
These leaves are plucked late on Friday, by persons who 
can maintain an unbroken silence from that time 
until dawn of the following morning. If gathered in 
a three-cornered kerchief and placed beneath a pillow, 
the leaves will inspire pleasant dreams. In another form 
of divination three leaves are pinned on a maiden's 
nightdress, then three pails of water are placed on the 
floor of her room, and an involved ritual performed in 
the belief that because of this ceremony the image of the 
maiden's future husband will be revealed to her in a dream. 

At Roman weddings a holly wreath was the most 
prized token of congratulations. It was believed that 
holly trees planted near dwellings would insure protection 
against the ill effects of lightning or sorceries. The 
fire worshipers, followers of Zoroaster (whose probable 
date is in the first millennium B.C.), believed that the 
holly tree casts no shadow. In his Natural History, 
Pliny describes the wonderful qualities of this plant, and 
relates that, according to Pythagoras, the blossoms congeal 
water, and that, if a staff of holly wood is thrown at an 
animal and does not "make the mark," it will return to 
the thrower. In Persia and India an infusion of holly 
leaves often is used, and newly born children are sprinkled 
with water in which holly bark has been soaked. Accord- 
ing to a widespread beHef, a sick child will be cured if it 
is passed through a cleft in a young oak or ash. In Sur- 
rey, England, the holly was thus used. 

Mistletoe and Holly 23 

Various species of holly have been used in medicine 
from very early times. The root and bark are deobstruent, 
the berries, though eaten by birds with no ill effects, are 
used as an emetic, and the juice of the leaves is used to 
relieve jaundice. The European species (Ilex Aquifolium) 
has been said to be equal to Peruvian bark (quinine) as 
a cure for intermittent fevers. 


The name "holly" or "holm" is derived from the 
Anglo-Saxon holegn, and another ancient name, "hulver," 
is derived from the Norse name hulfr. The generic Latin 
name, Ilex, was derived by Linnaeus from the Roman 
name for the evergreen oak of southern Europe. 

The holly (Ilex) is a genus belonging to the family 
Aquifoliaceae. The genus consists of more than two 
hundred species of shrubs and trees of wide distribution 
which inhabit temperate and tropical regions in Europe, 
Asia, and America, but are rare in Africa and Australia. 
They are absent from the western part of the United 
States but in the eastern and southern states there are 
thirteen species of holly. Most people, who identify 
holly by its shiny red fruit, are not familiar with some 
of these species, which have yellow, white, or even black 
berries. The leaves of the various species may also differ 
greatly; some are provided with spines, others are spine- 
less. Spines cover the entire surface of the leaves of the 
hedgehog holly {Ilex Aquifolium ferox). Among culti- 
vated varieties there also exists a great variation. One 
variety of the European holly has a profusion of fragrant 
flowers and no fruits, whereas another variety of the same 
species has an abundance of red berries. In cultivation, 
leaves of great beauty have been developed, such as the 
smooth leathery leaves of aureo-marginata, and the sharp 
spines of ferox. 

Holly is important horticulturally as a decorative 
shrub or tree, since it can be clipped into almost any 

24 Field Museum of Natural History 

shape, and is thus useful as a hedge plant. A famous 
hedge, in Deptford, England, known as Evelyn's holly, 
is said to have been 400 feet long, nine feet high and five 
feet in breadth. In France, particularly in Morbihan, 
peasants use the young stems of the holly as food for 
their cattle during the winter months. It is said also that 
the milk of cattle that feed on holly is of a superior 
quality and that the butter made from this milk is ex- 
cellent. The leaves are eaten by sheep and deer in various 
parts of France. The wood of the holly is almost as 
white as ivory and is hard. It is much used for inlay. 
It stains very evenly and is often used as a substitute for 
ebcmy, as, for instance, in teapot handles. In older 
trunks of holly trees the wood turns brown near the 
center. When dry, the wood weighs from 30 to 47 
pounds per cubic foot, the weight varying according to 
the species. 


The common species of European holly, also known 
by its ancient name "hulver," is Ilex Aquifolium. This 
is a shrub or tree of the evergreen variety, and is dis- 
tinguished from other species by its smooth, shiny, wavy, 
spinous leaves, and many-fiowered peduncles. The 
bark is of a gray ash color; the leaves are alternate and 
stalked. The fruit, a rounded red drupe, contains from 
two to sixteen one-seeded small nutlets. This tree gen- 
erally reaches a height of about ten feet, but in favorable 
locations it may attain a height of sixty or more feet. 
In Shropshire, England, there exist trees whose girth 
is said to be fourteen feet. However, it is used so ex- 
tensively in England for timber that, with few such 
exceptions, only small trees are now to be found. This 
species has a wide geographical distribution. With the 
exception of a small section of northern Scotland it occurs 
nearly everywhere in Great Britain, in western and 
southeastern Europe from as far north as Norway to 
Turkey, and in western Asia and the Caucasus. 

EUROPEAN HOLLY (Ilex Aquifolium) 


26 Field Museum of Natural History 


The holly which decorates our homes at Christmas 
time and which closely resembles the European holly 
is known as the American holly (Ilex opaca). The tree is 
common in the forests of southeastern parts of the United 
States, where it thrives in well-drained bottom-lands. 
It is an ornamental tree of a pyramidal outline, attaining 
a height of from forty to fifty feet. The smooth trunk 
varies in diameter from two to three feet. In winter, 
when other trees are denuded of their leaves, the American 
holly, with its dark green foliage and bright red fruits, 
is a very imposing sight in the forests. The leaves are 
thick, leathery, and spiny, though occasionally smooth- 
edged, of an obovate form, and persistent. The flowers, 
which blossom in the spring, are formed in the axils of 
new leaves. The staminate flowers are in three- to 
nine-flowered cymes while the pistillate occur singly or 
in twos. The fruit is a quarter of an inch in diameter, 
of a somewhat oval shape, bright red in color, rarely 
yellow, with narrow ribbed nutlets. 

Two species of holly, called dahoon and yaupon, 
grow in the southeastern part of the United States. 

Dahoon, known also as cassena, has the technical 
or scientific name Ilex Cassine. This is a beautiful small 
tree growing near the coast in the southern Atlantic 
and Gulf states. It attains its largest size in Alabama, 
Florida, and Georgia, where it is found in great abundance. 
It grows usually in humid soil near swamps and ponds. 
It varies in size from a shrub to a tree twenty or 
thirty feet in height. It has a rounded top, and a trunk 
from twelve to eighteen inches in diameter. The leaves 
are obovate, one to three inches long, without spines, 
and are of a dark green color above and somewhat yellow 
underneath. The flowers, less than half an inch broad, 
are white, in hairy clusters. The staminate clusters are 
three- to nine-flowered, the pistillate three-flowered. The 
fruit, which persists until spring, is bright red, a quarter 

AMERICAN HOLLY (Ilex opaea) 


28 Field Museum of Natural History 

of an inch in diameter, and contains prominently ribbed 
nutlets. The wood is often known as Henderson wood. 

The yaupon (Ilex vomitoria) is a small tree, varying 
in height from twenty to thirty feet and often of a shrubby 
type, having several trunks from a common base. It 
grows best in coastal regions, not too far inland, from 
Virginia to Florida, Arkansas, and Texas. This is a tree 
of unusual beauty, and conspicuous in the autumn and 
winter. The leaves are persistent, elliptical, and notched 
on the edges. The staminate flowers, several in each 
cluster, grow from the axils of the leaves of the previous 
year, and the pistillate clusters are one- or two-flowered. 
The fruit, often very abundant, is a bright red color, 
with nutlets prominently ribbed and somewhat rounded 
at both ends. The wood of this species is used extensively 
for inlay work and turnery. The leaves were known 
by the Indians to possess emetic and purgative properties. 
A tea known as "black drink" was made from the leaves 
by the North Carolina Indians and used in their cere- 
monials as well as for medicine. 

The following, regarding Ilex Cassine, is quoted from 

At a certain time of the year they [Indians] come down in droves 
from a distance of some hundred miles to the coast for the leaves 
of this tree. Thej^ make a fire on the ground, and putting a great 
kettle of water on it, they throw in a large quantity of these leaves, 
and, seating themselves around the fire, from a bowl that holds about 
a pint they begin drinking large draughts, which in a short time 
occasion them to vomit freely and easily. Thus they continue drink- 
ing and vomiting for the space of two or three days, until they have 
sufficiently cleansed themselves; and then, every one taking a bundle 
of the tree, they all retire to their habitations. 

Tea from holly leaves is still used by people living along 
the coast. The medicinal properties of this species are 
responsible for its common name of emetic holly and its 
scientific name Ilex vomitoria. 

In America there are numerous species of holly of the 
deciduous type which, although not often used for decora- 
tive purposes, are conspicuous because of their scarlet 
berries after their leaves have fallen in the autumn. 

Mistletoe and Holly 29 

These species are most frequently found near swamps and 
are smaller than the evergreen trees. One of the most 
common of these is the so-called swamp holly {Ilex 
decidua) found in localities west of the Mississippi, 
especially in Arkansas. It is usually a shrub but on rare 
occasions it may be a tree, sometimes attaining a height 
of twenty-five feet. The mountain holly has red berries 
which are shed with the leaves in autumn. 

Important among foreign hollies is the South Ameri- 
can species known as Paraguay tea {Ilex paraguariensis). 
This tree yields one of the most important economic 
products of South America, Paraguay tea or Yerba mate. 
The leaves of this tree, like cassine, contain the same 
active principle found in common tea and coffee. In 
preparing mat^ entire branches are cut off and the leaves 
scorched and dried while they are still on the branch. 
They are then beaten, selected, and coarsely ground, 
after which they are packed in skins and bags of leather. 
Several other species of holly, found in Brazil and Para- 
guay, yield a similar product. The drink is used exten- 
sively by the entire population of South America. In 
preparing the drink the leaves are infused just as ordinary 
tea. In the South American pampas region, where mate 
is generally prepared in a gourd, a small bombilla or tube 
is used with a wire network or perforations at the bottom, 
through which the tea is sipped. It is estimated that 
more than five million pounds of mat^ are exported 
annually from Paraguay alone. It goes mostly to other 
South American countries. 


Holly is generally propagated by planting seed or cut- 
tings. The seed normally will germinate the second year. 
In planting cuttings matured summer shoots are used, 
as these root very quickly. Young plants from seeds and 
cuttings may be transplanted successfully during damp 

30 Field Museum op Natural History 


Dyer, T. F. Thistelton 

The Folklore of Plants. New York, Appleton and Co., 1889. 

Falkard, Richard 

Plant Lore Legends and Lyrics. London, 1884. 

Frazer, Sir James George 

The Golden Bough, a study in magic and religion. 3rd ed., vols. 
1-12, Macmillan and Co., 1913-15. 

Friend, Rev. Hilderic 

Flowers and Flower Lore. Swan and Sonnenschein Co., London, 


Hale, E. M. 

Ilex Cassine, the Aboriginal North American Tea. U. S. Dept. 
Agr. Bull. 14, 1891. 

Hough, Romeyn Beck 

Handbook of the Trees of the Northern States and Canada. 
Lowville, N.Y., 1907. 

Lindley, John, and Moore, Thomas 
The Treasury of Botany. New York, 1899. 

Royal Gardens, Kew 
Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information, 1892, p. 133. 

Nicholson, George 
The Illustrated Dictionary of Gardening. New York. 


The Natural History. Trans. John Bostoc and H. J. Riley, 
London, 1885. 


JAN 4-1940 

The cover design and ilW)iWKS!»T3& OR tttWIMSflet were drawn by 
Sophia Prior, except figures 3 and 5, which are the work of Albert 
Frey. With the exception of the copy of a plate from Martius, they 
were drawn from specimens in the Museum's herbarium or exhibits. 
The mistletoes may be seen in the Hall of Plant Life (Hall 29) in 
Field Museum.