Misunderstood Mistletoe

More than just a Christmas tradition.

By April Jones

‘Tis the season when Christmas décor is pulled from its slumbering boxes; tinsel is pulled strand by strand; and the house is aglow. Among many homes, you will find boughs of mistletoe bound by lovely ribbon, hung throughout the corridors and doorways. These delicate evergreens linger with a bit of magical hope. Its presence insinuating that love’s true kiss will awaken the fires of the heart. It is always most fun and intriguing at seasonal gatherings to see what the herb instigates. Many intentionally place themselves beneath it, many embarrassingly realize once approached, and many others avoid it like the plague. This tradition has been carried on for some time, but most of us are completely unaware of the history.

European Mistletoe (Viscum album) and the American varieties of Phoradendron are a “partial parasite,” meaning they not only attach themselves within the branches or trees which host them (most typically oaks, pines, apple, plum, poplar and spruce trees), but they may also actually penetrate the structure. They absorb their nutrients from the source, so if the host plant dies, they will too. The origin of the name is most unclear and seems to have a broad etymology, but all seem to direct themselves towards a consensual persuasion. Some sources state it comes from a Celtic word for “all-heal”, others that it may be related to the German “Mist” (dung) ,and “Tang” (branch), and others still Old English of “Mistel”(also dung) and “Tan” (twig). The Celtic aspect correlates to the broad historical use of the plant’s medicine: treating nervous complaints, bleeding, and even tumors. The latter references of dung and trees is also quite compelling, for the seeds are passed through the fecal matter of animals, which if given ample time to germinate, will create a new plant.

The mysticism behind the plant is just as curious as the medicine it produces. The stories are broad and vary in reasons as to why we now stand beneath it to kiss. French tradition holds that the plant was plagued as a poisonous parasite  because it was growing on a tree which was used when Christ was crucified. In Greek mythology, in particularly, mistletoe is believed to be the Golden Bough of Aeneas, a Greco-Roman hero; son of  Anchises and  Aphrodite and deemed the legendary founder of Ancient Rome. The story is a rich “Study of Magic and Religion” and sets quite the stage to challenge theology and fertility. In pre-Christian Europe, the plant was seen to represent the divine male essence, quite possibly due to the uncanny resemblance the sticky, clear consistency of the berries has to semen.

The Celts believed it to be a remedy for barrenness in animals, as well as an antidote to poison. The ancient Druids considered mistletoe so sacred that they would circle the plant’s host trees chanting a song, while covering the earth with a white cloth as to not allow it to touch ground once cut with a golden knife. All quite stimulating and intriguing—even a bit erotic, don’t you think? As tradition would have it, once a kiss has been had, the man is to pluck a berry from the bough. But when the berries run out, the kisses are to cease. Is it fair to assume that she, who is kissed, is now fertile? And he that has delivered the kiss and plucked the berry is now able to leave and spread his seed? Hmm ….one could wonder.

But enough of all that, let’s get to the REALLY cool stuff, like actual medicinal constituents of the plant. Mistletoe affects the circulatory and nervous systems. It can first increase, then lower blood pressure, and ease arteriosclerosis.

In particular, it assists with headaches and dizziness due to high blood pressure.  It works as a nervine, and is considered a natural, non-habit forming tranquilizer believed by many European physicians to treat the spleen in cases of epilepsy. Human pharmacological studies have found an intravenous injection of extracts stimulates immune system function. Some animal and test tube studies suggest certain constituents found in mistletoe, including the alkaloids, can kill some cancer cells, stimulate insulin secretion from pancreas cells, and could improve blood sugar levels in individuals with diabetes. Mistletoe contains Vitamin B12, calcium, sodium, magnesium, potassium, iron, cobalt, iodine, copper and cadmium. The important thing to note is the dried leafy twigs of the European Mistletoe are what are most commonly used for medicine, and it is not advised to substitute the American species until further studies are available. There are at least three standardized, injectable extracts studied and regularly used in Europe: Iscador, Helixor and Eurixor (none of which are commercially available in the US, of course!).

So why all the hype about how dangerous this plant is? Reports (particularly related to children) have shown that ingesting LARGE quantities of the leaves and berries of the American species can cause nausea, vomiting, low blood pressure or dizziness. So, although the European mistletoe is less toxic, what we are placing in our homes is of the Western variety. As you hang your boughs of green this year, consider the potential, the possibilities, and the practicality of this most celebrated part of our tradition. Even if we aren’t ingesting this plant, it still stimulates the heart with the hope of love, and improves the probability of fertility! Who knows, it might be that this year, that last berry is hangin’ on just for you! Season’s Greetings, y’all!

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