Posted by: Prospector PJ22 DEC 2011
Mistletoe is most often used for kissing under at this time of year, but this unusual plant has a fascinating history in both folklore and in medicine.
Mistletoe is a hemiparasite. It has evergreen leaves that carry out some photosynthesis, but for water and minerals it mainly uses its host. European mistletoe (Viscum album), the only native species in Britain, is poisonous, causing stomach pain, diarrhoea and bradycardia.
Most mistletoe in Britain grows in Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire and Somerset, and its favourite host tree is the apple. This explains why Tenbury Wells, famous for its apple orchards, and situated on the border of Hertfordshire and Worcestershire, is the centre of the UK mistletoe harvest. The town has held mistletoe auctions for over 100 years and holds an annual mistletoe festival from late November until Christmas.
Viscum album featured prominently in Greek mythology, and is believed to be the Golden Bough of Aeneas, ancestor of the Romans. In cultures across pre-Christian Europe, it was seen as a representation of divine male essence, possibly due to a resemblance between the berry’s juice and semen. The tradition of kissing under mistletoe may be of Scandinavian origin.
The Druidic priesthood valued mistletoe both as a peace symbol and in medicine, and harvested it with a golden sickle. Getafix, the druid in the “Asterix the Gaul” cartoons, used it as an ingredient in his magic potions. The Church of England is not so keen on the plant, however, and discourages mistletoe in its churches.
According to Pliny the Elder, the Celts considered mistletoe a remedy for barrenness in animals and an antidote to poison. By the second half of the 19th century it was being prescribed for its antihypertensive properties.
Around 100 years ago Rudolph Steiner advocated the use of mistletoe to treat cancer, based on his anthroposophic theory of medicine. Steiner’s intuition that mistletoe might treat cancer was based on the fact that, like cancer, it is a parasitic growth that eventually kills its host.
Mistletoe is now one of the most widely studied complementary therapies for cancer, with 1,000 in vitro studies showing that mistletoe or its main constituents have anticancer activity.
In parts of Europe, extracts of mistletoe sold under brand names such as Iscador, Helixor and Eurixor are among the most prescribed therapies for cancer.
But an investigation by Edzard Ernst, former professor of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter, showed that the findings of studies into mistletoe’s medicinal properties are inconsistent, with some reports showing it has considerable potential for harm.