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Mythology and Medicine

Viscum album (European)
Phoradendron serotinum (American)

by Katrina Thompson

When we hear the word mistletoe, most of us envision a sprig of green leaves and white berries hanging above a door at Christmas time, bestowing the right to kiss the person standing underneath it. Mistletoe is an ancient herb that grows abundantly, as a hemiparasite on the branches and trunks of a variety of deciduous trees. The most common species used medicinally are the American mistletoes (the most prevalent of which is Phoradendron serotinum) and the European mistletoe (Viscum album L. , abbreviated as VAL), both from the family Loranthaceae and having almost identical traits. Mistletoe has many names: All Heal, Birdlime, Devil's Fuge, Donnerbesn, Golden Bough, Holy Wood, Lignam sanctae crucis, Misseltoe, Thunderbesem, Witches Broom, and Wood of the Cross.


Its most popular name is derived from ancient observations that mistletoe would often spontaneously appear on a branch or twig where birds had left droppings. "Mistel" is an Anglo-Saxon word meaning "dung," and "tan" is the word for "twig". So, mistletoe literally means "dung-on-a-twig".

Mistletoe is an evergreen parasitic plant that grows on branches of trees, where it forms pendent bushes, 2-5 feet in diameter. Its leaves are thick and leathery, oval to round, 1-2 inches long. The small, inconspicuous spring flowers leave behind white, sticky, autumn berries, about 1/4 inch long.

Since the earliest of times, mistletoe has been one of the most magical, mysterious and sacred plants in nature. It was held in great reverence by the Celtic Druids, who searched for the plant in the tops of the "sacred oak" tree on the sixth night of the moon. Dressed in white robes, the druids would cut the oak mistletoe with a golden sickle amidst prayers and rituals. They believed that the mistletoe protected its possessors from all evil and that the oaks, on which it was seen growing, were to be respected because of the wonderful cures which the priests were able to effect with it. The ancient Druids used mistletoe an aphrodisiac and a protection against poison; they believed that it had the power to bestow life and fertility.


Druidess holding mistletoes and sickle, standing next to a dolmen (painting by LaRoche, late 19th century.)

Christian folklore believes mistletoe was once a tree, of whose wood the cross on which Christ died was made. The tree then shriveled up with shame, changing into a plant that pours down good fortune on all who pass under it.

In the Middle Ages and later, branches of mistletoe were hung from the ceilings to ward off evil spirits. In Europe they were placed over houses and stable doors to prevent the entrance of witches.

Kissing under the mistletoe is first found associated with the Greek festival of Saturnalia and later with primitive marriage rites.

Shakespeare referred to it as 'the baleful Mistletoe,' from the Scandinavian legend that Balder, the god of Peace, was slain with an arrow made of Mistletoe. He was restored to life at the request of the other gods and goddesses, and Mistletoe was afterwards given into the keeping of the goddess of Love, and it was ordained that everyone who passed under it should receive a kiss, to show that the branch had become an emblem of love, and not of hate. Thus, in Scandinavia, mistletoe is considered a plant of peace, under which enemies could declare a truce or warring spouses could kiss and make-up.

Later, the eighteenth-century English credited with a certain magical appeal called a kissing ball. At Christmas time a young lady standing under a ball of mistletoe, brightly trimmed with evergreens, ribbons, and ornaments, cannot refuse to be kissed. Such a kiss could mean deep romance or lasting friendship and goodwill. If the girl remained unkissed, she could not expect not to marry the following year..

Ancient Magical Uses

The leaves and berries were once used for protection against lightning, disease, and misfortune. Mistletoe was placed in cradles to protect children from being stolen by fairies and replaced with changelings.

A ring carved of mistletoe wood was thought to ward off sicknesses when worn, and it was believed the plant would cure wounds quickly when carried (do not apply to the wound.)

Men carried or wore mistletoe for good luck in hunting and women carried it to aid conception. Mistletoe was used in spells aimed at attaining immortality and when worn around the neck, it was supposed to make one invisible to enemies.

Placed at the bedroom door, mistletoe was believed to grant restful sleep and beautiful dreams. It was also sometimes placed under the pillow and hanged from the headboard.



Mistletoe has been used for centuries for its medicinal properties. Although not scientifically validated, it may have been used as early as the 16th century to improve circulation and relax tight muscles. Other unverified uses included treatment of internal bleeding, convulsions, infertility, arthritis, rheumatism, gout, hysteria, whooping cough, asthma, hypertension, headache, dizziness, menstrual cycle and menopausal symptoms, diarrhea, chorea (rapid, jerky movements), and rapid heartbeat. Because of its calming effect, mistletoe is used as a tranquilizer for various nervous conditions and for the treatment of mental and physical exhaustion. It is also used as long-term therapy to prevent hardening of the arteries. Reports that mistletoe can induce lower blood pressure in animals and humans appeared as early as 1906.

Mistletoe has held interest as a possible anticancer agent since the 1920's. This is because extracts derived from it have been shown to kill cancer cells and to stimulate immune system cells. There are several components in mistletoe.


Small proteins that exhibit cell-killing activity and possible immune system stimulating activity.


A large group of nitrogen-containing chemicals produced by plants. Limited experimental evidence indicates that mistletoe alkaloids may also have anticancer activity.


Complex molecules that contain both protein and sugars and are capable of binding to the outside of cells (e.g. immune system cells) and inducing biochemical changes in them may be responsible for the beneficial effects of mistletoe.

In view of mistletoe's ability to stimulate the immune system, it has been classified as a type of biological response modifier. Biological response modifiers constitute a complex group of biologic substances that have been used individually, or in combination with other agents, to treat cancer or to lessen the adverse effects of anticancer drugs.


Nerve Tonic

4 parts
4 parts
4 parts
4 parts
2 parts
2 parts
2 parts
1 part

Passion Flower
European Mistletoe
Siberian Ginseng

Dose: six "00" capsules per day or as directed by your health care practitioner. Higher doses have a sedative effect.

Medicinal Uses

Mistletoe is used mainly in Europe and Asia, where commercially available products are marketed under the brand names Iscador, Eurixor, Helixor, Isorel, Vysorel, and ABNOBAVISCUM. Mistletoe extracts are prepared as aqueous solutions (solutions of water and alcohol), and they can be fermented or unfermented. For example, Iscador is an aqueous extract of Viscum album L. that is available in both fermented and unfermented forms. In addition, Iscador products can be subdivided according to the species of host tree. IscadorM is obtained from apple trees, IscadorP comes from pine trees, IscadorQ comes from oak trees, and IscadorU comes from elm trees. Helixor is an unfermented aqueous extract of Viscum album L., with HelixorA from spruce trees, HelixorM from apple trees, and HelixorP from pine trees. Helixor is reported to be standardized by its biologic effect on human leukemia cells grown in the laboratory. Eurixor is an unfermented aqueous extract of Viscum album L. obtained from poplar trees. Mistletoe extracts have been administered by intramuscular injections, subcutaneous injection (sometimes in the vicinity of a tumor), or intravenous infusion.


The following resources were used in the making of this report:






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