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Mistletoe, herb of medicine and lore

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Mistletoe, herb of medicine and lore

Few herbs are more interesting and steeped in lore than European Mistletoe (Viscum album).  European Mistletoe is very different from American Mistletoe, and should never be confused - American Mistletoe is very poisonous (more on that later).  European Mistletoe was an herb used in ancient Greek and Roman medicine, recommended by Hippocrates, Dioscorides and Pliny.  It was widely used in the Monastic Herbalism of the Middle Ages.  Most famously though, it was one of the sacred herbs of the Druids, who believed it had mystical powers.  Rudolph Steiner, the father of Biodynamics, believed it could be used as a cancer treatment… and modern science is bearing that out.  For modern readers, all this has mostly come down to the Christmas time tradition of kissing beneath the Mistletoe… though, few know why they do or the origin of the tradition.  However, European Mistletoe is a remarkably useful medicinal herb, included in the Swedish Bitters, and a valid part of any materia medica.

According to Plants for a Future (

Mistletoe is chiefly used to lower blood pressure and heart rate, ease anxiety and promote sleep. In low doses it can also relieve panic attacks and headaches, and also improves the ability to concentrate. The plant's efficacy as an anticancer treatment has been subject to a significant amount of research - there is no doubt that certain constituents of the plant , especially the viscotoxins, exhibit an anticancer activity but the value of the whole plant in cancer treatment is not fully accepted. It is said that the constituents of mistletoe vary according to the host plant it is growing on - that found on oak trees is said to be superior. Because of the potential side effects, this plant should only be used internally under the guidance of a skilled practitioner. Using the plant internally can provoke intolerant reactions to certain substances. The leaves and young twigs contain several medically active compounds. They are antispasmodic, cardiac, cytostatic, diuretic, hypotensive, narcotic, nervine, stimulant, tonic and vasodilator. They are harvested just before the berries form and are dried for later use. Mistletoe has a reputation for curing epilepsy and other convulsive nervous disorders. The effect of the correct dosage is to lessen and temporarily benumb the nervous activity that causes the spasms, but larger doses can produce the problem. Mistletoe has also been employed in checking internal haemorrhages, in treating high blood pressure and in treating cancer of the stomach, lungs and ovaries. Externally, the plant has been used to treat arthritis, rheumatism, chilblains, leg ulcers and varicose veins. A homeopathic remedy is made from equal quantities of the berries and leaves. It is difficult to make because of the viscidity of the sap.

Dioscorides wrote of the use of European Mistletoe in treating external tumors.  Pliny gives us the history of use among the Druids  in his Natural History, written in the 1st century AD:

We should not omit to mention the great admiration that the Gauls have for it as well. The druids – that is what they call their magicians – hold nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and a tree on which it is growing, provided it is a hard timbered oak.. 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.

Saint Hildegard included European Mistletoe in her book of medicine, Physica, in the early 1100s, but she finds Mistletoe grown on the pear tree as the most useful, “If someone has pain in his chest or lungs, he should take mistletoe and pulverize it.  He should add some pulverized licorice to it and eat it often, whether fasting or with meals.  One who suffers gicht (gout, arthritis, rheumatism or stiffness) should place this same sweet tasting mistletoe, cut in bits, in olive oil for three days and nights.  Afterward, he should melt twice as much deer tallow as olive oil on a fire, and place well crushed and ground spikenard in that tallow for two days and nights.  Then he should pound well the oil with the mistletoe which was placed in it, and express the juice through a cloth, and gently heat it with the deer tallow and spikenard.  The man should be anointed where the gicht is raging and it will be chased off…”

German herbalist, Fr. Kneipp, in his 1890 book, My Water Cure, says of European Mistletoe, “ Its healing powers are principally directed to the blood, and I cannot too strongly advise mothers to make early acquaintance with this herb.  Bloody flux is arrested by Mistletoe…  For other disorders of circulation counsel may also be sought of the mistletoe and it's perfectly harmless tea.”

Later English herbalist, Maude Grieves advises in A Modern Herbal, that the leaves and stems of the European Mistletoe are the principal parts used medicinally - the berries are poisonous:

Parts Used Medicinally---The leaves and young twigs, collected just before the berries form, and dried in the same manner as described for Holly.

---Medicinal Action and Uses---Nervine, antispasmodic, tonic and narcotic. Has a greatreputation for curing the 'falling sickness' epilepsy - and other convulsive nervous disorders. It has also been employed in checking internal haemorrhage.

The physiological effect of the plant is to lessen and temporarily benumb such nervous action as is reflected to distant organs of the body from some central organ which is the actual seat of trouble. In this way the spasms of epilepsy and of other convulsive distempers are allayed. Large doses of the plant, or of its berries, would, on the contrary, aggravate these convulsive disorders. Young children have been attacked with convulsions after eating freely of the berries.

In a French work on domestic remedies, 1682, Mistletoe (gui de chêne) was considered of great curative power in epilepsy. Sir John Colbatch published in 1720 a pamphlet on The Treatment of Epilepsy by Mistletoe, regarding it as a specific for this disease. He procured the parasite from the Lime trees at Hampton Court, and recommended the powdered leaves, as much as would lie on a sixpence, to be given in Black Cherry water every morning. He was followed in this treatment by others who have testified to its efficacy as a tonic in nervous disorders, considering it the specific herb for St. Vitus's Dance. It has been employed in convulsions delirium, hysteria, neuralgia, nervous debility, urinary disorders, heart disease, and many other complaints arising from a weakened and disordered state of the nervous system.

Ray also greatly extolled Mistletoe as a specific in epilepsy, and useful in apoplexy and giddiness. The older writers recommended it for sterility.

The tincture has been recommended as a heart tonic in typhoid fever in place of Foxglove. It lessens reflex irritability and strengthens the heart's beat, whilst raising the frequency of a slow pulse.

Austrian herbalist, Maria Treben gives us the most comprehensive advice on the uses of European Mistletoe in Healthy Through God’s Pharmacy:

The leaves and small twigs which are cut for drying are gathered from the beginning of October to the middle of December and then in March and April. In the remaining months of the year, Mistletoe is without medicinal properties. Plants with the greatest healing power grow on oaks and poplars; but those growing on pines, firs and fruit trees are also medicinally strong. Again a hint on gathering: ln March and April the Mistletoe has hardly any berries. The birds have picked them in winter. There is less work then in cutting the leaves and twigs, since the removal of the sticky berries that are still there between October and December is no longer necessary.

Frequently I have been asked why I praise Mistletoe so much, since it is supposed to be poisonous. The leaves and twigs are not; only the berries, if taken internally. An ointment made of the berries and lard is excellent for frost bites

A woman had chilblains on her nose for years. During winter she was reluctant to leave the house because of her blue-red nose. It got worse from year to year. I advised her to apply a poultice of fresh Mistletoe berries on her nose overnight. Although it sounds unbelievable it is a fact that her nose was normal after a few days.

Since Mistletoe benefits the whole glandular system it also aids the metabolism. At the same time it favorably influences the pancreas so that through drinking Mistletoe tea over a long period, diabetes loses its original cause. Especially people who suffer from chronic metabolic disorders should try to drink Mistletoe tea regularly for six months. It is excellent for hormonal imbalance. In this case at least 2 cups a day, one in the morning and one in the evening, are sipped.

For hardening of the arteries Mistletoe is an excellent remedy, esteemed and recommended for stroke, which would scarcely have happened, had the tea been drunk regularly. After a stroke drink 3 cups a day for 6 weeks, 2 cups for 3 weeks and 1 cup for 2 weeks; the first cup, half before and half after breakfast, the second cup before and after lunch and the third cup before and after dinner.

Mistletoe tea is also used as a blood-staunching remedy. It stops nose-bleeding when used cold, if drawn up into the nose. As a tea it arrests lung- and intestines-bleeding caused by typhoid or dysentery.

Mistletoe is the best remedy for heart and circulatory complaints. I cannot emphasize Mistletoe enough for circulatory problems. Since it has active substances which normalize the whole system, it lowers high and raises low blood pressure. lt soothes the restless heart and strengthens it. All the side effects of abnormal blood pressure such as blood rushing to the head, dizziness, buzzing in the ears and visual defects disappear. Mistletoe, it can be said, is invaluable in all heart and circulatory disorders. People in our fast moving times, with the tensions of modern living and working under stress, surely need an aid like Mistletoe.

In many letters I have received, people state that thanks to Mistletoe they have found relief in a short time from high blood pressure, bad circulatory problems, lack of energy, heart disorders, heart flutters, dizziness and unwillingness to work. 3 cups of Mistletoe, made as a cold infusion and sipped throughout the day, will normalize your heart and your circulation and guarantee an increased work activity. In general, Mistletoe tea should be drunk for six weeks, once a year; 3 cups for 3 weeks, 2 cups for 2 weeks and 1 cup for 1 week. Blood pressure and circulation will have recovered after this. To keep it that way it is of benefit to keep on drinking 1 cup in the morning for a year.

A gentleman from the district of Mainz (Germany) suffered from low blood pressure for years, sometimes so badly he was unable to work. He had tried different doctors, but still he was no better. He was very skeptical about my advice that Mistletoe lowers high blood pressure and raises low blood pressure. It was April and the Mistletoe still had its healings powers. A few months later, during a talk I gave in Upper Austria, he sat in the first row and told everyone that now his blood pressure was normal.

Women, too, should take Mistletoe tea. The normalized circulation brings uterine and menstrual disorders into equilibrium, especially heavy menstruation as well as bleeding after confinement. For palpitations of the heart, difficulties in breathing, hot flushes and feelings of anxiety during menopause, Mistletoe tea, drunk for a few years, brings relief and you will pass through the change naturally. The fresh juice of Mistletoe, 25 drops in water on an empty stomach before breakfast and 25 drops in water in the evening before going to bed will remedy bareness in woman.

Some time ago an announcement appeared in the London press that three independently working research groups came to the conclusion that a high percentage of women over 50 years of age developed cancer of the breast, if they have, for treatment of high blood pressure, taken blood pressure reducing medication over a long period. Why take this risk, when we have our valuable Mistletoe?

Lately, Mistletoe is used medicinally to counteract and prevent cancer. Again and again we are shown, how herbs are effective in disease prevention as well as cleansing the body of harmful substances. - Use the herbs and do your body a favour; it will keep you healthy and strong.

So, what of American Mistletoe?  American Mistletoe is Phoradendron leucarpum, which as indicated by the name, a completely different plant.  Yes, it looks almost identical… and it grows the same way.  American Mistletoe is commonly seen on hardwood trees and is a beautiful plant for holiday decoration.  Many southern kids, just a generation or two ago, made their Christmas money by collecting mistletoe once the leaves fell from the trees… usually by shooting it down. And yes, American Mistletoe may have some herbal use…. But, it is extremely poisonous!  

American mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum) is rarely used medicinally. Some herbalists believe that it has an opposite effect from the European mistletoe (Viscum album).  However, both the American and European species contain toxic proteins which are similar in their chemical composition and produce similar side effects, including hypotension, bradycardia, and vasoconstriction in test animals.

American mistletoe often called false or oak mistletoe is believed by some herbalists to stimulate smooth muscles, causing a rise in blood pressure and increased uterine and intestinal contractions. .

The 1918 Dispensary of the United States of America includes several uses for AMerican Mistletoe, but mentions, “The American Mistletoe is the Phoradendron flavescens (Pursh) Nutt. It is a woody parasite, growing upon the branches of deciduous trees from New Jersey to Florida and westward. It is probably the plant reported as growing upon the elm, by which several children were poisoned. (Henry Dye, Memphis Med. Recorder, iv, 344.) The prominent symptoms were vomiting and great thirst followed by frequent discharge of bloody mucus from the bowels, with tenesmus. One of the children was found in a collapsed state, in which death took place.”

Finally, as to the tradition of kissing beneath the Mistletoe… well, that is a bit of a mystery, too.  It likely came from either the Druid or Norse traditions.  Mrs. Grieves mentions:

The Druids held that the Mistletoe protected its possessor 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. They sent round their attendant youth with branches of the Mistletoe to announce the entrance of the new year. It is probable that the custom of including it in the decoration of our homes at Christmas, giving it a special place of honour, is a survival of this old custom.

The curious basket of garland with which 'Jack-in-the-Green' is even now occasionally invested on May-day is said to be a relic of a similar garb assumed by the Druids for the ceremony of the Mistletoe. When they had found it they danced round the oak to the tune of 'Hey derry down, down, down derry!' which literally signified, 'In a circle move we round the oak. ' Some oakwoods in Herefordshire are still called 'the derry'; and the following line from Ovid refers to the Druids' songs beneath the oak:

'---Ad viscum Druidce cantare solebant---.'

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.

While, an interesting article in The Spruce states:

According to anthropologists, the Norse myth dictated that if, while out in the woods, you happened to find yourself standing under a mistletoe upon encountering a foe, you both had to lay down your arms until the following day.  This ancient custom went hand-in-hand with the Norse myth about Baldur, son of the god Odin and his wife, the goddess Frigga, found in the Prose Edda. When Baldur was born, Frigga made every plant, animal, and inanimate object promise not to harm Baldur. However, Frigga overlooked the mistletoe plant, and the mischievous god of the Norse myths, Loki, took advantage of this oversight. Loki tricked one of the other gods into killing Baldur with a spear made from mistletoe. Hermódr the Bold was appointed to ride to Hel in an attempt to bring Baldur back. Hel's condition for returning Baldur was that absolutely every last thing in the world, living and dead, had to weep for Baldur. Failing that, he would remain with Hel. When this condition was put to the test, all wept except for a certain giantess, believed to be Loki in disguise. Baldur's resurrection was thus thwarted.

Variations on this myth about Baldur and the mistletoe have made their way down to us. For example, some relate it was agreed, after the death of Baldur, that from then on mistletoe would bring love rather than death into the world, and that any two people passing under mistletoe would exchange a kiss in memory of Baldur. Others add that the tears Frigga shed over the slain Baldur became the mistletoe berries.

As you can see, Mistletoe is an herb of so much use and history that I’ve exhausted seven pages and barely scratched the surface.  Much more could be said, but I’m not inclined - hopefully, it has whetted your appetite to learn more.  And, if you are a single young lady who may be interested in an eccentric hillbilly… perhaps I’ll meet you beneath the Mistletoe about this time next year!
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