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Myths and mistletoe

PUBLISHED: 16:55 21 December 2010 | UPDATED: 18:19 20 February 2013

Myths and mistletoe

Myths and mistletoe

Mysterious mistletoe is steeped in more history and legend than practically any other plant, says our herb expert Ed Berger

Mysterious mistletoe is steeped in more history and legend than practically any other plant, says our herb expert Ed Berger




Viscum album is an evergreen pendulous shrub which grows up to one metre in diameter, producing small yellow flowers and white berries during the winter.
The unique characteristic of mistletoe is that it grows semi-parasitically in the branches of apple, oak, willow, lime and other trees, putting down suckers into the bark to draw up nutrients, whilst simultaneously producing its own energy. Our ancestors believed that mistletoe had a symbiotic or even therapeutic relationship with host trees, observing that it flourished in unhealthy trees and that its removal could result in the host tree dying.
The name Viscum derives from the Anglo Saxon mistel meaning dung and tan meaning twig from the early observation that the plant grows from bird droppings. Indeed the white berries are readily eaten by birds, who deposit their seed-filled droppings in tree branches where the plant takes root. The sticky berries also cling to birds beaks, which they clean by rubbing their beaks on tree bark, once again sowing the seeds in the branches of trees.


Christmas kisses
The mistletoe affords young men the privilege of kissing any girl who stands beneath it. After each kiss a berry is plucked from the bough and when all the berries are used up the privilege ceases. Traditionally, the mistletoe would be burned on 12th night to ensure that none of the kisses led to marriage.
This may seem just some innocent fun at a Christmas party, however mistletoe is more steeped in history and mythology than practically any other plant. Allegedly the Druids called the evergreen mistletoe all heal and hung it in doorways to protect against evil. They gathered it at the mid-winter solstice on December 21 as a symbol of life during the dead of winter, as well as using it to announce the New Year.
Shakespeare called it the baleful mistletoe from the Norse legend in which Baldr, god of light and peace was killed by an arrow made from mistletoe. After restoring Baldr to life, the gods gave mistletoe into the keeping of the goddess of love, ordaining that anybody who passed beneath it should receive a kiss. In Scandinavian countries, this symbolism meant that enemies could declare a truce or warring spouses kiss and make up beneath the plant.
Kissing beneath the mistletoe then, is a fascinating amalgamation of Celtic midwinter celebrations and Nordic mythology which has found a comfortable place amongst the peace, hope and goodwill of Christmas celebrations.


Safety
The parts of mistletoe used medicinally are the leaves and stems, however this herb is best under the supervision of a qualified herbalist. It should not be used during pregnancy or breast feeding, or if taking any orthodox medicines without first speaking to a qualified herbalist, pharmacist or your GP. Mistletoe berries are poisonous to humans.



Medicinal use


The Celts revered mistletoe as having the power to bestow life and fertility, using it as a poison antidote, aphrodisiac and general cure all. In more recent centuries it was used for nervous conditions including falling sickness (epilepsy), hysteria, headaches and nerve pain. Interestingly the curative properties varied according to the host tree, and research has confirmed differing chemical compositions according to whether the host was an oak or a willow for instance.
Modern uses include as a treatment for nervous excitability, high blood pressure, heart failure and tachycardia (rapid heartbeat), based on research showing that certain constituents slow down the heart beat. Other chemicals have been shown to improve immune responses and the production of feel good endorphins which may go some way to explaining its traditional use as a panacea for all ailments.
An interesting development in the use of mistletoe was Iscador, a homeopathic anti-cancer treatment developed by Rudolf Steiner, who metaphorically compared the growth of mistletoe on trees to cancers in the body.




Ed Berger has been practising herbal medicine for 12 years and lives near Woodbridge. He is course director of herbal medicine for the College of Naturopathic Medicine. To discuss any aspect of herbal medicine, herb garden design or to arrange a consultation please contact on 07931 797148 or info@edberger.co.uk Suffolk magazine readers can get a 50% discount on an initial consultation (normal price 40).

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