Baldur, grandson of the Norse god Thor, woke up one morning certain that each and every plant and animal on earth wanted to kill him. His mother consoled him. His wife consoled him, but all to no avail. As Baldur cowered in his room, half-wild with fear, his mother and wife decided to ask every living thing to leave their poor Baldur in peace. They begged the kindness of the oak tree, the pig, the cow, the crow, the ant and even the worm. Each agreed. Then, as Baldur paused to celebrate his release from torment, he felt a pain in his chest. He had been stabbed and killed by an arrow made from the wood of a mistletoe plant. Mistletoe was the one species on earth his wife and mother had failed to notice.

Baldur died, but a lesson was learned: Never forget about the mistletoe. Mistletoe would come to hang over our doors as a reminder to never forget. We kiss beneath it to remember what Baldur’s wife and mother forgot. At least that is one version of the origin of our relationship with mistletoe.

Another story begins with druids who viewed the mistletoe as magical and hung it above their doors for luck. Others say it is hung for fertility; the seeds of mistletoe are sticky like semen. The modern story of mistletoe is one of kisses. As Washington Irving wrote in the 1800s, “young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under [mistletoe], plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked the privilege ceases.”

The true story of mistletoe is the one I am going to tell here, the one of how it evolved in the first place, to hang on trees (and eventually above our doors). The ancestor of all mistletoes is the most ancient sandalwood.

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