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
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.
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.
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 twigthough 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 Godall 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 Godall, 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 sorrowall 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 darknessa perfectly appropriate myth for the
celebration of the winter solstice, which marks the return of the
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.
Protection, key to life's mysteries, fertility,
abundance, blessings, peace, harmony, balance of opposites, love,
transformation. Astrologically this herb is governed by the Sun
||leaves and stems
||autumn, before the berries form
||depending on the host plant these may
vary: viscotoxin, triterpenoid saponins, cholin, proteins,
resin, mucilage, histamine, traces of an alkaloid
||anti-tumor, cardioactive, nervine, tonic
||stress, nervous conditions, heart problems,
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.
'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:
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,
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.
The berries are poisonous. Do not use internally.
This is not an herb for home experimentation. Consult a doctor
or herbal practitioner.
Copyright by Kat Morgenstern 2002
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