Whilst I’ve not actually spotted any mistletoe in the hedgerows along my section of the Cut, I couldn’t resist learning a little more about a mysterious plant. This is what I found out.
Fact File drawn from http://www.kew.org/plants-fungi/Viscum-album.htm
Scientific name: Viscum album L.
Common name(s): mistletoe, European mistletoe, European white-berry mistletoe, common mistletoe, all-heal, masslin. The word ‘mistletoe’ (Old English mistiltan) is of uncertain etymology. It may be related to the German Mist, for dung and Tang for branch, since mistletoe can be spread in the droppings of birds moving from tree to tree.
Conservation status: Local but relatively common across the UK, particularly found in Herefordshire
Habitat: Partially parasitic, growing on several woody hosts (trees and shrubs) in the UK, poplar, lime, apple and hawthorn are common hosts. Mistletoes on native European oaks are rare.
Key uses: Festive decoration. Medicinal.
Known hazards: Mistletoe leaves, stems and berries can be poisonous to humans if ingested, and pets such as dogs are also at risk when mistletoe is brought indoors.
About the Species:
- A partially parasitic plant well-known for its waxy white berries and in Europe is strongly associated with Christmas. It is highly sought-after for use as a winter decoration and there is a long-held tradition of kissing underneath bunches of mistletoe.
- The stem is yellowish and smooth, freely forked, separating when dead into bone-like joints. The leaves are tongue-shaped, broader towards the end, 1 to 3 inches long, very thick and leathery, of a dull yellow-green colour, arranged in pairs, with very short footstalks. The flowers, small and inconspicuous, are arranged in threes, in close short spikes or clusters in the forks of the branches, and are of two varieties, the male and female occurring on different plants. They open in May. The fruit is a globular, smooth, white berry, ripening in December.
- In the UK, mistletoe grows most commonly on apple trees, lime and poplar, but also on blackthorn, hawthorn, rowan and willow, and depends on birds to disperse its seeds. Its white fruits contain a sticky pulp that may either cling to a bird’s bill or else pass through its gut unharmed. When the seeds are voided, or the bird wipes the pulp off against a branch, the mistletoe seeds are dispersed. Mistle thrushes and blackcaps commonly eat the fruits, the association with the former being another possible origin of the common name of the plant.
- All mistletoes are hemi-parasites, bearing evergreen leaves that do some photosynthesis themselves, using the host tree or bush mainly for water and mineral nutrients. Mistletoe seed germinates on the branch of a host and in its early stages of development is independent of its host. Later it forms a root that penetrates the host tissue and takes water and nutrients from the host plant.
- Mistletoe was held in great reverence by the Druids as a sacred plant and gathered it with great ceremony, separating it from the Oak with a golden knife. The Mistletoe was always cut at the beginning of the year, and it was only sought for when the Druids declared they had visions directing them to seek it. The Druids held that the Mistletoe protected its possessor from all evil.
- The use of mistletoe in herbal remedies and medicine probably has its origins in prehistory. According to Pliny the Elder the druids of Britain used to harvest mistletoe from their sacred oaks (and oak is a rare host for traditional mistletoe) to use in rituals and in medicine. It’s never been clear exactly what they used it for – but it has had a reputation ever since as an all-heal and for use to enhance fertility, cure nervous disorders and relieve high blood pressure.
- Herbals continued to feature mistletoe as a medicinal plant, with most concentrating on its fertility symbolism (which may have more to with the plant’s appearance than its chemical properties) and on its value in helping nervous illnesses, particularly epilepsy.The great Herbals of the 15th to 17th centuries all include these claims, often stressing (and depicting) the value of mistletoe on oak – a direct echo of Pliny’s writings many centuries before.
- By the 18th century these claims were beginning to be backed-up (to some extent) by research, including a famous study by Sir John Colbatch in 1720, investigating mistletoe’s effects on epilpesy. At that time he wrote: “that there must be something extraordinary about that uncommon beautiful plant, that the Almighty had designed it for further and more noble uses than barely to feed thrushes or to be hung up superstitiously”
- Shakespeare calls it ‘the baleful Mistletoe,’ an allusion to 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.
- In cultures across pre-Christian Europe, mistletoe was seen as a representation of divine male essence of romance, fertility and vitality some of which was seemingly appropriated by Christmas…