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
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".
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
Druidess holding mistletoes and sickle,
standing next to a dolmen (painting by LaRoche, late 19th
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..
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
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
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
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
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.
Dose: six "00" capsules
per day or as directed by your health care practitioner.
Higher doses have a sedative effect.
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
The following resources were used in
the making of this report:
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