Mistletoe Myths and Medicines

Mistletoe Myths and Medicines

Most people associate mistletoe with kissing, as it’s customary for anyone caught standing under a sprig of this plant (often strategically placed in a doorway) to receive a kiss. But did you know that mistletoe, now considered a Christmas plant, was used as a religious symbol in pagan rites centuries before the time of Christ?   To the ancient Druids of Britain, it was a sacred symbol with both magical powers and medicinal properties.

These ancient people believed mistletoe could cure diseases, make animals and humans more fertile, provide protection from witches, and bring good luck. In fact, mistletoe was so sacred to the Druids that if two enemies met beneath a tree on which it was growing, they would lay down their weapons, exchange greetings, and observe a truce until the following day!

When the Druids found mistletoe growing on an oak tree, they used a golden knife to remove it, taking care that the sacred plant did not touch the ground to protect its special powers. They then sacrificed a white ox to consecrate the event. 

Mistletoe was not allowed in Christian places of worship for many years because of its widespread acceptance in pagan ceremonies. But it is not clear just how it became part of the Christmas holiday season.

Mistletoe is the common name for any one of a hundred species of plants from as far away and diverse climates as Australia, South Africa, and Europe. Our traditional American mistletoe (Phoradenron leucarpum) is very similar to the European species, (Viscum album), only with shorter and broader leaves, and more berries (groups of ten or more compared to clusters of two to six berries in the European species).  These species are in the Santalaceae family, one of three mistletoe families, formerly all under the name Viscaceae.  

The common name is said to come from the Anglo-Saxon “Misteltan”, “tan” meaning twig and “mistl” meaning different.  This refers to the fact the plant is different from the twigs it grows on.  Another version attributes the name to the word “mistel” for dung, referring to the bird droppings of seeds which spread the plant.  The Latin name of the genus means “sticky”, and refers to the viscous or sticky juice of the berries.

This slow-growing plant forms a greenish-yellow evergreen shrub that grows two to three feet long, hanging from tree branches. The male and female flowers of the mistletoe are borne on compact spikes on separate plants. The tiny, yellow flowers that appear in late fall soon give rise to the familiar white berries.  These attract many birds which, if plants are in junipers, also eat the juniper berries.  This results in denser stands supporting more wildlife. 

Mistletoe will parasitize many hosts, among them apple trees, poplars, lindens, willows, and, more rarely, oaks.  Structures called “haustoria” attach it to trees, through which it extracts water and nutrition from them.  A botanical anomaly, it is the only complete plant considered a true parasite for it often kills the hardwood tree it infests.  There is even a legend regarding this.

In Brittany, it is called “herbe de la croix”, or herb of the cross.  According to the legend, the wood of this plant was used for the Christ Cross, afterward being reduced to a parasite.  In the fourteenth century, it was called “lignum crucis,” or wood of the cross.

Most American mistletoe is commercially harvested in Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. It grows in the wild in the southern states, as far north as West Virginia.
The custom of hanging up mistletoe may stem from the Druid tradition of laying down arms and exchanging greetings under mistletoe.  Priests would send around youth bearing branches of mistletoe in celebration of the new year.  Druids would dance around oaks they found bearing mistletoe.  This custom even is mentioned in the writings of Ovid.

So where did kissing under the mistletoe begin?  One legend attributes this practice to the English who, after every kiss, plucked a berry from the bunch and discarded it. When the berries were gone, tradition called for the kissing to stop. Needless to say, plentiful bunches were eagerly sought for the holidays.

Another legend comes from Scandinavia and is alluded to by Shakespeare.  In this legend, Balder, the god of Peace, was killed by an arrow made of mistletoe.  His life was restored at the request of other gods and goddesses, with the mistletoe being given to the goddess of love to prevent such from happening again.  She said that everyone who passed under it should receive a kiss to show this plant was a symbol of love, and not of hate.  

Before getting carried away with this symbol of love, be aware that the European mistletoe has been used medicinally for many centuries, and still is.  It has been used as a general cure for most ailments, particularly in Korean and Chinese medicine.  In Europe, preparations from it are used for treating cancer while in the U.S. this use has not been approved.  Studies suggest that this plant may be beneficial for treating HIV, hypertension, and diabetes.  Research and authorities often disagree on its benefits, and interactions with other products, so it is advised to consult your pharmacist or doctor before using this plant for other than decoration.  

Likewise, the toxicity of the plant and berries to humans is debated.  Only in rare cases has eating the berries been reported to harm children, and then usually in large doses.  Berries have been listed as toxic to cats and small animals.  If you have such pets or are concerned about children, perhaps you may wish to hang artificial mistletoe, as I do, for holidays.

Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor Emeritus
University of Vermont

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