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Littell's Living Age/Volume 132/Issue 1704/The Mistletoe

From Hardwicke's Science-Gossip.


This plant seems to produce a premature aging of the whole tree on which it grows, and the particular branch which supports it soon gets withered and dead. This becomes an economical question in cider-orchards. To a tenant the growth of mistletoe on his trees is an advantage, as he gets the benefit of age in producing a larger crop of smaller and sweeter apples, more suitable for cider-making. To the owner this is a short-sighted policy, as it causes the premature aging and decay of his trees, and the same quality of fruit can be produced by skilful pruning. The plant is diæcious, having somewhat conspicuous flowers, the male ones possessing a strong honey-like odor. Hence it is evident that it must be fertilized by insects. As the berries are almost invariably formed, this fertilization must be frequent. In many books it is said to be indebted to a moth for the performance of this office, but the species (if only one) is not mentioned. In a paper in the Gardener's Chronicle it is said that bees are attracted by the smell of the male flowers in its season. Lubbock, in his excellent little book on British wild-flowers in their relations to insects, does not mention the mistletoe at all. The anthers have their faces curiously punctated, and are attached to the perianth; I have seen no mention of honey-glands, nor have I ever been able to examine the flowers, so cannot say if the honey is accessible or not. If the plant is dependent on one species only for its fertilization, that species must be a frequent one, and have a large range. I have not heard of its being the larval food of any insect, nor of any species of aphis dependent on it. The plant seems to be indebted to birds for all its natural propagation. The berries are said to be greedily eaten by many birds, and the seeds to pass through the stomach without digestion. Many writers of the eighteenth century disputed this fact. One says that birds would not eat what they could not digest; and if they did so, the seeds let fall in their dung upon the trees would always grow upon the upper side, whereas we find the mistletoe at all inclinations with the bough. Relating to this idea and to the use of the berries in making birdlime, is a Latin proverb, occurring in several forms, one of which is as follows: "Tardus sibi malum cacat." I must leave its translation to your readers. One author says of the mistletoe, "And this is the nature of it: unless it be mortified, altered, and digested in the stomach and belly of birds it will never grow." The earliest name I have been able to find for the mistletoe is the Celtic guid, meaning "the shrub," par excellence. The present French name, gui, is evidently a direct descendant of this. In Hooker & Arnott's "British Flora" the Greek name for this plant, written variously, iks, iksos, and iksia, is derived directly from the Celtic guid, though perhaps the derivation is somewhat strained. It is probable that the words are related in some way, but we must trace each back to its antecedents before the connection becomes self-evident. The forms of the Greek name iksos in the Æolian dialect are biskos and fiskos; and this last at once brings out the relation between the Greek and the Latin names viscus and viscum, and with the modern Italian vischio, the Portuguese visgo, and the Spanish hisca, which are evidently lineal descendants from the same. Here, however, the chain stops, and we take up in gui, the French name, a link much closer to the Celtic guid. Further north we are introduced to a name which seems to have no relation to the southern name. The German, Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish name for it is mistl or mistel; the Anglo-Saxon is mystelto or mysteltan; and the English mistel, mistleto, mistletoe, misleto, misletoe, miseltoe, misseltoe, misselto, misseltoe, misleden, misselden, misseldine, and missendine, of which the form mistleto seems to be most generally adopted in modern time. Other names for this curious shrub, the relations of which I am quite unable to trace, are the Spanish liga, Russian omeia, Polish jerniel, and the Dutch marentakken. The Italians are said also, from "its extraordinary virtues, too many to enumerate," to call it Lignum sancta crucis, the wood of the holy cross. The mistletoe of the fir and larch was distinguished in Greek by the name stelis, which was also adopted in the Latin. The word viscus, if it can, as seems probable, be traced up to and past the Celtic guid, a shrub, must have got its evident connection with viscidity from its application to this shrub; so that the general derivation of the name from viscid, or sticky, is an anachronism. It is easy to understand how the word viscum, from meaning originally the shrub, should come to mean sticky and glutinous, from one of the most obvious peculiarities of the shrub.