Mother Earth Living

Viscum Album: Unravel Mistletoe History and Lore

Heidi Cardenas is a freelance writer and gardener in Lake County, Illinois, with a background in human resources. She has written about gardening for various online venues and enjoys The Herb Companion’s valuable resources.

Mistletoe appears in doorways and corners during the winter holidays as part of ancient decorations and rituals. Mistletoe is a semi-perennial parasitic evergreen with more than 900 species. Its seeds sprout from bird droppings in trees and grow into the trunk, tapping into the tree’s water and nutrient systems. European mistletoe (Viscum album) has many whimsical common names, including churchman’s greeting, kiss-and-go, devil’s fuge, golden bough and all-heal. It is native to Europe and Asia, growing high up in the canopies of apple, birch, hawthorn, maple and other softwood trees, although rarely it will get a roothold in oak. Mistletoe grows in a globe-shaped mass attached to the host tree branches, with the oval leaves of most species growing in pairs on thin twigs.

This herb is a semi-parasitic evergreen that grows in the tops of softwood trees.
Photo by bdk/Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Mistletoe produces small round milky white berries that are toxic to humans but are winter forage for birds; its seeds are spread through bird droppings. It slows the growth of its host tree and, if left to grow uncontrollably, it will kill the tree it infests. Commercially grown mistletoe is harvested with cherry pickers because it grows up high in treetops. Many orchardists in Europe grow mistletoe along with apples, as apple trees are the plant’s favored host trees.

Mistletoe has ancient roots as a sacred plant with sacred powers. The Druids harvested it by cutting it from trees with a golden sickle after spreading a white cloth under the tree so the cut plants didn’t touch the ground. They believed its sacred, magical properties were diluted or lost if it touched the ground. Myths about mistletoe include the belief that it was the tree used to make Christ’s cross and was then condemned to never grow in the earth. Some also believe that mistletoe takes the soul of its host tree in winter, stealing its strength and power until spring. Mistletoe found growing in oak trees is thought to be especially powerful since the mighty oak is a hardwood tree that is more difficult for the parasitic plant to invade.

Mistletoe grows as a globe-shaped shrub in tree branches.
Photo by David Monniaux/Courtesy
Wikimedia Commons

Modern herbal and medical uses of mistletoe include treatments to control high blood pressure, sleep disorders, anxiety and cancer. Europeans boil the leaves with hawthorn berries and lemon balm to make a tea for heart treatments. Medicinal products made from mistletoe are available in Europe for cancer treatments because of its ability to stimulate the immune system and kill cancer cells. They are classified by the type of host tree they grow on and are administered by injection and intravenous infusion.

Traditional winter holiday decorative uses of mistletoe involve hanging a bunch of mistletoe tied with a ribbon in the middle of a doorway for protection and good luck, especially for parties. Hung in windows and doors throughout the home, it is said to protect from lightning and fire and ward off evil spirits. It is also reputed to give sleepers a restful night and sweet dreams when placed at the head of the bed. Those standing underneath the mistletoe get to kiss as part of ancient winter solstice fertility rituals.

  • Published on Dec 20, 2010
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