An Evergreen of Contrasts

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Mistletoe is an evergreen of contrasts. Its lustrous green and golden globes only fully visible once winter has removed the dead leaves around it

The European mistletoe, Viscum Album is semi-parasitic. It takes water and nutrients from the host’s inner bark yet its own green leaves power photosynthesis.

Unhindered by the need for sunlight or gravity, mistletoe expands in all directions. It creates baubles of golden-green and hangs from its one connecting root, decorating the host like a Christmas Tree. 

Its miraculous appearance, when all else is dormant, gave mistletoe its august role in Druidic lore and medicine. While it is poisonous, it also helps cure cancer. Mistletoe is truly an evergreen of contrasts.

Etymology 

The name mistletoe emerges from two Anglo-Saxon words mistel “dung” and tan “twig”, literally a ‘shit-twig’! This alludes to mistletoe’s’ liking for the faeces that provides its vehicle of arrival (sticky berries love bird feathers) and the nutrients to stimulate growth.

In the US, the common name is Phoradendron “tree thief”In medieval times mistletoe was known as all-heal pointing to its many medicinal uses.

Mistletoe Germination

The germinating seed of a mistletoe. The white sticky viscin keeps the seed attached while its haustorium seek out water and nutrients

Mistletoe seeds dream of a light Christmas. Its greenhouse of mucilage, The inner seed, already green and primed to kick-start its photosynthetic powerhouse, is enveloped in a greenhouse of mucilage. 

In December, the white berries turn translucent to bathe the seed in light. Germination works best between February and April and light is crucial. Two to three weeks of darkness between December and germination can be fatal. 

If all goes well, the seed attaches itself to a suitable host with its superglue, viscin, and begins to penetrate the host tissue with a highly modified root called a haustorium (Latin: “the one who drains”.)

Medicinal

Another stark contrast. While Mistletoe is poisonous to humans, its toxins are at the forefront of successful trials in the curing of some cancers.

It depends on which species you eat as to the toxicity. The Phoradendron species contains phoratoxin, which can cause blurred vision, nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhoea, and death. 

The European Viscum species of mistletoe contain a slightly different cocktail including the alkaloid tyramine, that produces similar symptoms as above.

In contrast, the benevolent mistletoe contains over 1,000 different constituents, some of which have tumour-inhibiting properties due to a glycoprotein called lectin

To complement the effects of lectin, Mistletoe also contains viscotoxins that present immunostimulatory effects. Arginine (an amino acid) and high levels of vitamin C also contribute to mistletoe’s immunomodulation effect on cancerous cells.

Gold embossed mistletoe. The cover of Sir James Frazer’s work on magic and religion, The Golden Bough

To the Celts, the health-giving properties of mistletoe were as revered as the plant itself. A plant born free from the soil that bloomed during the darkest months became associated with the Sun god Taranus.

Trees blessed with mistletoe were held in high esteem, especially if this was an oak. Druid comes from the word Doire or Dru Wid “Oak seer”. In his Natural History, written in the 1st Century AD, Pliny the Elder gives us a flavour of the Druidic ritual ‘Oak and Mistletoe:

The druids – that is what they call their magicians – hold nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and a tree on which it is growing …

Mistletoe is rare and when found it is gathered with great ceremony, and particularly on the sixth day of the moon. Hailing the moon in a native word that means ‘healing all things,’ they prepare a ritual sacrifice and banquet beneath a tree and bring up two white bulls, whose horns are bound for the first time on this occasion.

A priest arrayed in white vestments climbs the tree and, with a golden sickle, cuts down the mistletoe, which is caught in a white cloak. Then finally they kill the victims, praying to a god to render his gift propitious to those on whom he has bestowed it. They believe that mistletoe given in drink will impart fertility to any animal that is barren and that it is an antidote to all poisons.

Customs & References

Mr. Fezziwig's Ball, an illustration from the first edition of A Christmas Carol that popularised the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe
Mr Fezziwig’s Ball, an illustration from the first edition of A Christmas Carol that popularised the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe

A 1784 musical comedy, Two to One, provides the first recorded account of kissing under the mistletoe. The custom was popularised by its illustration at Mr. Fezziwig’s Ball in the first book version of A Christmas Carol in 1843.

Mistletoe Links

  • Sir James Frazer’s monumental work on magic and religion, published in 1922 is called The Golden Bough

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