Mysterious Mistletoe

by

Kat Morgenstern

Mistletoe Loranthaceae
Viscum album

Synonyms

English: Bird Lime, Birdlime Mistletoe, Mystyldene, Lignum Crucis, All-heal

German: Affolter, Donnerbesen, Heil aller Schäden, Hexenbesen, Nistel, Vogelleimholz, Heiligholz, Heilkreuzholz, Drudenfuss, Wintergrün, French: Herbe de la Croix, Gui de Chêne

Description

Mistletoe grows as a parasite on various deciduous trees. Occasionally it also grows on pines. Contrary to popular belief it is rarely found on oak trees but commonly associated with apple, poplar, and lime. Mistletoe has some relatives that actually grow as trees or bushes, which suggests that the parasitic habit is acquired and has subsequently been passed on genetically.

mistle1.jpg (5K)

Mistletoe has an odd appearance: a yellowish ball hanging high up in the tree, visible only after the host tree has lost all its leaves. Mistletoe is evergreen and sustains its greenish yellow leaves throughout the winter. Its growing habit is distinctly round; its twigs branch frequently, and its elongated, oval leaves always grow in opposite pairs. The tiny, inconspicuous yellowish flowers appear in May, but the white, pea-sized, white berries don't ripen until late in the year. Birds, in particular thrushes, are responsible for their seed distribution. The berries are distinctly sticky (hence the Latin name Viscum album —- "white sticky stuff") and easily cling to branches and soon send out a sucker rootlet that penetrates the bark of the host tree and taps its sap for nutrients and water.

Ecology

Although mistletoe is a parasite and as such dependent on the host-plant for nutrients and water, its does not rely on it for carbon dioxide. Since mistletoe produces green, chlorophyll-containing leaves, it can perform its own photosynthesis. As a rule mistletoe does not kill the host-plant and thus is not really harmful to it. While birds feed on the berries without apparent harm, they are toxic to humans.

History, Mythology and Folklore

The enigma of the mistletoe, airborne between heaven and earth, has always been a mystery. Where did it come from? How could it sustain itself, without roots, yet bear leaves and fruit, even throughout the winter long after the green life-force has retreated into the womb of the earth?

The Druids revered the Mistletoe as the holiest of holies, especially when it appeared on an Oak, their most sacred tree. It was their 'Golden Bough', the key to the heavens and the underworld. The mysterious plant was regarded as the reproductive organs of Thor, the god of thunder, who also presided over the sacred oak tree. In the Druidic tree calendar, the 23rd of December is given to the mistletoe, the day when it was ceremoniously cut. After offering prayers the chief Druid would ascend into the tree to cut the mistletoe with a golden sickle. Utmost care was taken to prevent the herb from touching the ground. Instead, it had to be caught in a white cloth. Two white bulls, sacred to the Moon-Goddess, all dressed up in garlands were also sacrificed on the holy occasion. The sacrifice of the regenerative power of the solar deity was to bestow blessings of abundance and protection from all evil for the new year. It represented a marriage of the solar and lunar forces, a harmonization of all opposites in perfect balance at the turning point of the year. To celebrate the return of the life-force an orgiastic celebration ensued.

Tame and shallow remnants of these ancient and long forgotten ritual enactments have survived even into the 21st century. To this day mistletoe twigs are hung in doorways at Christmas time giving permission to kiss, even a stranger and receive the blessing of the humble twig—though nobody remembers why. In some of the rural, more traditional areas of France, young children can occasionally be seen distributing mistletoe blessings on New Years Day. Running through the village, shouting 'Au gui l'an neuf' (gui de chêne — mistletoe) they dedicate the New Year to the mistletoe and invoke its protective blessings.

Mistletoe was believed to ward off all evil, bad spirits and witchcraft, and was sometimes worn as a protective amulet. It was also believed to bestow fertility and abundance.

In Norse mythology, a darker, though related aspect of the mistletoe symbolism is revealed. The story goes that Baldur, the divine solar hero child of Frigg and Odin was killed by a twig of mistletoe and would not return until after doomsday, when he would bring a new era of light, a golden age. We are told that Baldur, having visions of his immanent death grew concerned. When his parents heard about this they too grew concerned and Frigg went out to obtain oaths from all the elements, the stones, tree, plants and even venomous beasts. All swore never to harm the beautiful young God—all but the mistletoe, who Frigg had deemed too feeble to do any harm and so she never asked for its allegiance. Satisfied with all the promises she thought her divine son invincible and it became a favorite pastime among the gods to shoot arrows and throw stones at the young God, none of which could harm him. Indeed, aiming shots at Baldur became a sign of honoring him. Unfortunately for Baldur, though the jealous God Loki found out about the neutral status of the mistletoe. He went and picked a branch and returned to the Gods assembly where everyone was having fun shooting at the invincible God—all, except Hodur, Baldurs blind brother. Slyly, Loki went up to Hodur and asked, "Why don't you show honor to your brother by taking a shot at him?" "Because, I can't see, nor do I have anything to throw," he replied. "Here, I will help you," Loki offered, passing Hodur the mistletoe twig and assisting him to direct his aim. In an instant Baldur lay dead. The Gods were aghast and horrified, shocked and angered, and immediately swore to avenge the attack. Meanwhile another brother was sent off to the Underworld to plead with the Goddess of Death to allow Baldur to return to the heavens. However, the plea was only granted under the condition that all the gods and all the beings of the earth, living or dead, must weep and show their sorrow or else Baldur would have to remain in the Underworld until doomsday. After hearing this, all the gods and all the beings of the earth, living and dead, wailed and wept to show their sorrow—all but one: Loki, disguised as an old hag. And so it came to pass that we must wait till doomsday passes for the young sun god to return (which can't be far off - the way things are going.)

This legend follows the classic pattern of the solar hero myth, promising redemption and renewal after a period of darkness—a perfectly appropriate myth for the celebration of the winter solstice, which marks the return of the Sun God.

Hardly surprising, the mistletoe also found its way into Christian mythology as the wood from which Christ's cross was said to have been fashioned. It is due to this disgrace that the mistletoe has been reduced to a parasitic existence.

In Greek mythology mistletoe was also associated with the Underworld. Here, the sacred bough presented the key with which a living mortal could enter the Underworld and return to the world of the living unharmed, as is told in the story of Aeneas.

Aeneas, a young hero, enters the underworld by the power of the golden bough and the aid of the age-old Sybil as his guide. He enters this frightful place in search of his father to seek his guidance and advice. He finds him and receives his teachings concerning the cycles of life and death, which he had come for. Eventually he returns safely to the world of the living. But it is the mistletoe that provides him with the key to his destiny and opens the gates to the transformational powers of the underworld from which he returns spiritually reborn.

Magical Powers

Protection, key to life's mysteries, fertility, abundance, blessings, peace, harmony, balance of opposites, love, transformation. Astrologically this herb is governed by the Sun and Jupiter.

Medicinal Uses
Parts used leaves and stems
Harvest autumn, before the berries form
Constituents depending on the host plant these may vary: viscotoxin, triterpenoid saponins, cholin, proteins, resin, mucilage, histamine, traces of an alkaloid
Actions anti-tumor, cardioactive, nervine, tonic
Indications stress, nervous conditions, heart problems, epilepsy

 

Internal Use

In former times amulets made from mistletoe wood
were thought effective in warding off epileptic attacks.

Mistletoe not only has an interesting mythology, but also is interesting from a medicinal point of view. Though the Druids probably somewhat overrated the herb, deeming it useful for any kind of ailment, later herbalists still valued it highly for a variety of different ailments. Most notably it is recommended as a remedy for epilepsy, especially childhood epilepsy. This treatment reflects a homeopathic approach, as large doses of the herb and in particular of the berries actually cause fits and convulsions. It was employed as a specific for this ailment and also used as a nervine to treat hysteria, delirium, convulsions, neuralgia as well as urinary disorders and heart complaints especially where these are related to a nervous condition.

Mistletoe is also known as a cardioactive agent that improves the pulse, regulates the heart rate and simultaneously dilates the blood vessels, thus lowering blood pressure. It reduces headaches and dizziness caused by high blood pressure. However, from the available literature, it is not entirely clear in which form mistletoe should be administered for this effect. Some sources maintain that the cardioactive principle is only effective if applied by injection while other sources recommend standard teas, tinctures, and extracts. One source also states that the active principles would be destroyed by heat and thus should only be prepared by cold infusion. The differing opinions regarding the preparation methods are certainly confusing. Recently another interesting property of mistletoe has become a matter of scientific interest. Since ancient times mistletoe has been used to treat tumors.

Culpeper states:

'The Birdlime doth mollifie hard Knots, Tumors, and Impostumes, ripeneth and discusseth them; and draweth forth thick as well as thin Humors from the remote places of the Body, digesting and separating them'

This property has been subject to research and it has been found that mistletoe preparations show cytotoxic properties in vitro and to some degree in vivo. It has also shown to stimulate the immune system response through an increased number of white blood cells. Both of these properties have made mistletoe a candidate for cancer and AIDS research. Indeed, a mistletoe preparation is used in chemotherapy. Studies show both equal and better survival rates of patients treated with certain mistletoe preparations. However, the interviewed patients reported a better quality of life, as mistletoe does not produce the nausea and hair loss associated with other cytotoxic chemotherapy agents. Also, the immune response is improved. A negative side effect of subcutaneous treatment is the possibility of local infection at the site of injection. For detailed study results check out:

HerbMed
National Cancer Institute

Mistletoe is also reputed to regulate digestive functions, curing chronic constipation, probably through its stimulating effect on the gall bladder. It also increases metabolic activity generally and is thus recommended as a blood cleanser.

Older sources also recommend it in cases of sterility and menstrual difficulties. With regard to the aforementioned nervine properties this would make sense where these conditions are due to an underlying nervous condition (stress, tension, hysteria, fear).

External Use

Externally mistletoe use is no longer common, but according to old sources it can be prepared as a plaster (mixed with wax to make an ointment) and applied to hardened swellings and tumors. It can be usefully employed in crèmes to soothe sensitive, sore skin. Such crèmes are disinfecting and soothing and reduce abnormal cell production, which could be useful in psoriasis lotions and anti-dandruff shampoos.

Caution:

The berries are poisonous. Do not use internally. This is not an herb for home experimentation. Consult a doctor or herbal practitioner.

Visit Sacred Earth to read more articles by Kat Morgenstern, to subscribe to her ezine newsletter, and to plan your next eco-vacation.

 

 

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Copyright by Ingrid Naiman 2003, 2006, 2014