Common Name: Mistletoe
Botanical Name: Viscum album (LINN.)
Family Group: N.O. Loranthaceae
Origins of its name:
The common name of the plant is derived from the ancient belief that mistletoe was propagated from bird droppings. This belief was related to the then accepted principle that life could spring spontaneously from dung. It was observed in ancient times that mistletoe would often appear on a branch or twig where birds had left droppings. "Mistel" is the Anglo-Saxon word for "dung," and "tan" is the word for "twig". So, mistletoe means "dung-on-a-twig".
By the sixteenth century, botanists had discovered that the mistletoe plant was spread by seeds which had passed through the digestive tract of birds. One of the earliest written references to this appeared in England, in 1532, in an Herbal published by Turner. Botanists of the time also observed that the sticky berry seeds of the mistletoe tended to cling to the bills of birds. When the birds cleaned their bills by rubbing them against the branches or bark of trees, the the seeds were further scattered.
About the Plant:
Mistletoe is especially interesting botanically because it is a partial parasite (a "hemiparasite"). As a parasitic plant, it grows on the branches or trunk of a tree and actually sends out roots that penetrate into the tree and take up nutrients. But mistletoe is also capable for growing on its own; like other plants it can produce its own food by photosynthesis. Mistletoe, however, is more commonly found growing as a parasitic plant.
There are two varities of mistletoe. The mistletoe that is commonly used as a Christmas decoration (Phoradendron flavescens) is native to North America and grows as a parasite on trees from New Jersey to Florida in the East, and along the Pacific coast in California, Oregon and Southern Washington State. The other varity of mistletoe, Viscum album, is of European origin. The Greeks and earlier peoples thought that it had mystical powers and down through the centuries it became associated with many folklore customs.
The European mistletoe is a green shrub with small, yellow flowers and white, sticky berries which are considered poisonous. It commonly seen on apple but only rarely on oak trees. The rarer oak mistletoe was greatly venerated by the ancient Celts and Germans and used as a ceremonial plant by early Europeans.
The traditions which began with the European mistletoe were transferred to the similar American plant with the process of immigration and settlement.
The magical tradtions - From the earliest times mistletoe has been one of the most magical, mysterious, and sacred plants of European folklore. It was considered a bestower of life and fertility; a protectant against poison; and an aphrodisiac.
The mistletoe of the sacred oak was especially sacred to the ancient Celtic Druids. On the sixth night of the moon white-robed Druid priests would cut the oak mistletoe with a golden sickle. Two white bulls would be sacrificed amid prayers that the recipients of the mistletoe would prosper.
Later, the ritual of cutting the mistletoe from the oak came symbolize the emasculation of the old King by his successor. Mistletoe was long regarded as both a sexual symbol and the "soul" of the oak. It was gathered at both mid-summer and winter solstices, and the custom of using mistletoe to decorate houses at Christmas is a survival of the Druid and other pre-Christian traditions. (Mistletoe is still ceremonially plucked on mid-summer eve in some Celtic and Scandinavian countries.)
In the Middle Ages and later, branches of mistletoe were hung from ceilings to ward off evil spirits. In Europe they were placed over house and stable doors to prevent the entrance of witches.
It was also believed that the oak mistletoe could extinguish fire. This was associated with an earlier belief that the mistletoe itself could come to the tree during a flash of lightning.
In parts of England and Wales farmers would give a bunch of mistletoe to the first cow that calved in the New Year. This was thought to bring good luck to the entire herd.
In Scandinavia, mistletoe was considered a plant of peace, under which enemies could declare a truce or warring spouses kiss and make-up.
In some parts of England the Christmas mistletoe is burned on the twelfth night lest all the boys and girls who have kissed under it never marry.
And for those who wish to observe the correct etiquette: a man should pluck a berry when he kisses a woman under the mistletoe, and when the last berry is gone, there should be no more kissing!Kissing under the mistletoe has long been a part of Christmas tradition. But just what is mistletoe and how did it's association with Christmas evolve?
Kissing under the mistletoe is first found associated with the Greek festival of Saturnalia, and later with primitive marriage rites. Mistletoe was believed to have the power of bestowing fertility, and the dung from which the mistletoe was thought to arise was also said to have "life-giving" power.
Mistletoe for health and to a Merry Christmas!
Medicinal Action and Uses
The Mistletoe stem is yellowish and smooth, freely forked, separating when dead into bone-like joints. The leaves are tongue-shaped, broader towards the end, 1 to 3 inches long, very thick and leathery, of a dull yellow-green colour, arranged in pairs, with very short footstalks. The flowers, small and inconspicuous, are arranged in threes, in close short spikes or clusters in the forks of the branches, and are of two varieties, the male and female occurring on different plants. Neither male nor female flowers have a corolla, the parts of the fructification springing from the yellowish calyx. They open in May. The fruit is a globular, smooth, white berry, ripening in December.
The well-known Mistletoe is an evergreen parasitic plant, growing on the branches of trees, where it forms pendent bushes, 2 to 5 feet in diameter. It will grow and has been found on almost any deciduous tree, preferring those with soft bark, and being, perhaps, commonest on old Apple trees, though it is frequently found on the Ash, Hawthorn, Lime and other trees. On the Oak, it grows very seldom. It has been found on the Cedar of Lebanon and on the Larch, but very rarely on the Pear tree. When one of the familiar sticky berries of the Mistletoe comes into contact with the bark of a tree - generally through the agency of birds - after a few days it sends forth a thread-like root, flattened at the extremity like the proboscis of a fly. This finally pierces the bark and roots itself firmly in the growing wood, from which it has the power of selecting and appropriating to its own use, such juices as are fitted for its sustenance: the wood of Mistletoe has been found to contain twice as much potash, and five times as much phosphoric acid as the wood of the foster tree. Mistletoe is a true parasite, for at no period does it derive nourishment from the soil, or from decayed bark, like some of the fungi do - all its nourishment is obtained from its host. The root becomes woody and thick.
Mistletoe is found throughout Europe, and in this country is particularly common in Herefordshire and Worcestershire. In Scotland it is almost unknown.
Mistletoe was held in great reverence by the Druids. They went forth clad in white robes to search for the sacred plant, and when it was discovered, one of the Druids ascended the tree and gathered it with great ceremony, separating it from the Oak with a golden knife. The Mistletoe was always cut at a particular age of the moon, at the beginning of the year, and it was only sought for when the Druids declared they had visions directing them to seek it. When a great length of time elapsed without this happening, or if the Mistletoe chanced to fall to the ground, it was considered as an omen that some misfortune would befall the nation. The Druids held that the Mistletoe protected its possessor from all evil, and that the oaks on which it was seen growing were to be respected because of the wonderful cures which the priests were able to effect with it. They sent round their attendant youth with branches of the Mistletoe to announce the entrance of the new year. It is probable that the custom of including it in the decoration of our homes at Christmas, giving it a special place of honour, is a survival of this old custom.
The genus Viscum has thirty or more species. In South Africa there are several, one with very minute leaves, a feature common to many herbs growing in that excessively dry climate; one in Australia is densely woolly, from a similar cause. Several members of the family are not parasitic at all,being shrubs and trees, showing that the parasitic habit is an acquired one, and now, of course, hereditary.
Mistletoe is always produced by seed and cannot be cultivated in the earth like other plants, hence the ancients considered it to be an excrescence of the tree. By rubbing the berries on the smooth bark of the underside of the branches of trees till they adhere, or inserting them in clefts made for the purpose, it is possible to grow Mistletoe quite successfully, if desired.
The bird calle the Thrush a great disseminator of the Mistletoe, devouring the berries eagerly, from which the Missel Thrush is said by some to derive its name. The stems and foliage have been given to sheep in winter, when fodder was scarce, and they are said to eat it with relish.
In Brittany, where the Mistletoe grows so abundantly, the plant is called Herbe de la Croix, because, according to an old legend, the Cross was made from its wood, on account of which it was degraded to be a parasite.
The English name is said to be derived from the Anglo-Saxon Misteltan, tan signifying twig, and mistel from mist, which in old Dutch meant birdlime; thus, according to Professor Skeat, Mistletoe means 'birdlime twig,' a reference to the fact that the berries have been used for making birdlime. Dr. Prior, however derives the word from tan, a twig, and mistl, meaning different, from its being unlike the tree it grows on. In the fourteenth century it was termed 'Mystyldene' and also Lignum crucis, an allusion to the legend just mentioned. The Latin name of the genus, Viscum, signifying sticky, was assigned to it from the glutinous juice of its berries.
The curious basket of garland with which 'Jack-in-the-Green' is even now occasionally invested on May-day is said to be a relic of a similar garb assumed by the Druids for the ceremony of the Mistletoe. When they had found it they danced round the oak to the tune of 'Hey derry down, down, down derry!' which literally signified, 'In a circle move we round the oak. ' Some oakwoods in Herefordshire are still called 'the derry'; and the following line from Ovid refers to the Druids' songs beneath the oak: '---Ad viscum Druidce cantare solebant---.' Shakespeare calls it 'the baleful Mistletoe,' an allusion to the Scandinavian legend that Balder, the god of Peace, was slain with an arrow made of Mistletoe. He was restored to life at the request of the other gods and goddesses, and Mistletoe was afterwards given into the keeping of the goddess of Love, and it was ordained that everyone who passed under it should receive a kiss, to show that the branch had become an emblem of love, and not of hate.
Mistletoe contains mucilage, sugar, a fixed oil, resin, an odorous principle, some tannin and various salts. The active part of the plant is the resin, Viscin, which by fermentation becomes a yellowish, sticky, resinous mass, which can be used with success as a birdlime.
The preparations ordinarily used are a fluid extract and the powdered leaves. A homoeopathic tincture is prepared with spirit from equal quantities of the leaves and ripe berries, but is difficult of manufacture, owing to the viscidity of the sap.
Parts Used Medicinally:
Leaves and young twigs, berries are the parts used. The leaves and young twigs are collected just before the berries form, and dried in the same manner as described for Holly.
Medicinal Action and Uses:
Nervine, antispasmodic, tonic and narcotic. Has a greatreputation for curing the 'falling sickness' epilepsy - and other convulsive nervous disorders. It has also been employed in checking internal haemorrhage.
The physiological effect of the plant is to lessen and temporarily benumb such nervous action as is reflected to distant organs of the body from some central organ which is the actual seat of trouble. In this way the spasms of epilepsy and of other convulsive distempers are allayed. Large doses of the plant, or of its berries, would, on the contrary, aggravate these convulsive disorders. Young children have been attacked with convulsions after eating freely of the berries.
In a French work on domestic remedies, 1682, Mistletoe (gui de chêne) was considered of great curative power in epilepsy. Sir John Colbatch published in 1720 a pamphlet on The Treatment of Epilepsy by Mistletoe, regarding it as a specific for this disease. He procured the parasite from the Lime trees at Hampton Court, and recommended the powdered leaves, as much as would lie on a sixpence, to be given in Black Cherry water every morning. He was followed in this treatment by others who have testified to its efficacy as a tonic in nervous disorders, considering it the specific herb for St. Vitus's Dance. It has been employed in convulsions delirium, hysteria, neuralgia, nervous debility, urinary disorders, heart disease, and many other complaints arising from a weakened and disordered state of the nervous system.
Mistletoe is greatly extolled as a specific in epilepsy, and useful in apoplexy and giddiness. The older writers recommended it for sterility.
The tincture has been recommended as a heart tonic in typhoid fever in place of Foxglove. It lessens reflex irritability and strengthens the heart's beat, whilst raising the frequency of a slow pulse.
Besides the dried leaves being given powdered, or as an infusion, or made into a tincture with spirits of wine, a decoction may be made by boiling 2 OZ. of the bruised green plant with 1/2 pint of water, giving 1 tablespoonful for a dose several times a day. Ten to 60 grains of the powder may be taken as a dose, and homoeopathists give 5 to 10 drops of the tincture, with 1 or 2 tablespoonsful of cold water. Mistletoe is also given, combined with Valerian Root and Vervain, for all kinds of nervous complaints, cayenne pods being added in cases of debility of the digestive organs.
Fluid extract: dose, 1/4 to 1 drachm.
Country people use the berries to cure severe stitches in the side. The birdlime of the berries is also employed by them as an application to ulcers and sores.
If you have comments, suggestions, or questions, email webmeister at lübeckhaus@sedelmeier.com