Mistletoe (Viscum album)
When we think of mistletoe most of us automatically think of the romance and joy of Christmas with many of our favourite Christmas movies having scenes of kissing under the mistletoe. However there is a lot more to this yuletide plant than most know, from mythology to how it grows and its many health benefits.
Traditional mistletoe features prominently in ancient legend and mythology. Superstitions about mistletoe are prevalent amongst many different cultures and for the most part it is seen as a good omen rather than a bad one. It is often used in rituals to gain protection from fire, to repel witches, for promoting fertility in herds and crops, to give success to hunters and forcing evil spirits out. It is also believed the Golden Bough carried by Aeneas in ancient Greece was mistletoe. The Golden Bough is also identified with sacred branches that grew on the oak tree grove in the sanctuary of Diana at Nemi. To become High Priest of the sanctuary, one had to first succeed in plucking the sacred bough and then kill the reigning priest.
Mistletoe originates from the celtic name meaning ‘all-heal’ and has been used for centuries as a traditional medicine in Europe for various reasons including supporting cardiovascular health, reproductive health, immune system health and for mild osteoarthritis.
Mistletoe is defined as a semi-parasitic plant as it grows attached to branches of trees and shrubs. It is found most commonly growing on pine, poplar, oak, apple trees and locust trees. Mistletoe can make its own chemical compounds, but it also has the ability to take nutrients from the host tree it is attached to; therefore the active phytochemicals found in mistletoe will depend on the tree it is growing on.
In traditional Western herbal medicine, mistletoe was used medicinally by either placing the plant on the affected part or by drinking a decoction of the plant. Its uses were varied and included sore muscles, common cold, headaches and for gout just to name a few. Early peasants in England and continental Europe as well as the Ainu people of Japan regarded mistletoe as a symbol of fertility. It is reported that Torres Strait Islanders believe that a pregnant woman who touches mistletoe will have twins.
In modern times, extracts from mistletoe have shown benefits in the cardiovascular system due to its function as a vasodilator. It also acts as a nervine (calms the nervous system) and antispasmodic (reduces muscle spasms) further making it beneficial for cardiovascular health. Its other notable actions in the cardiovascular system involve it being an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. Mistletoe is also highly regarded for its use in modulating the immune system.
Next time you see some mistletoe hanging you might think of its long history and wonderful health benefits rather than as a novelty Christmas gimmick.
- Mediherb. Modern Phytotherapist Vol 2 No.1 1995
- Barlow B. 2008. Mistletoes in Australia: Mistletoe in folk legend and medicine. Australian National Herbarium. Australian National Botanic Gardens. Australian Government. Viewed 29/11/18. https://www.anbg.gov.au/mistletoe/folk-legend.html
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). 2016. European Mistletoe. US Department of Health and Human Services. Viewed 29/11/18. https://nccih.nih.gov/health/mistletoe
- Saha C, Das M, Stephen-Victor E, Friboulet A, Bayry J, Kaveri SV. Diff erential Eff ects of Viscum album Preparations on the Maturation and Activation of Human Dendritic Cells and CD4+ T Cell Responses. Molecules. 2016 Jul 14;21(7). pii: E912. doi: 10.3390/ molecules21070912.
- Poruthukaren KJ, Palatty PL, Baliga MS, Suresh S. Clinical evaluation of Viscum album mother tincture as an antihypertensive: a pilot study. J Evid Based Complementary Altern Med. 2014 Jan;19(1):31-5. doi: 10.1177/2156587213507726. Epub 2013 Nov 5.
- Twardziok M, Kleinsimon S, Rolff J, Jäger S, Eggert A, Seifert G, et al. Multiple Active Compounds from Viscum album L. Synergistically Converge to Promote Apoptosis in Ewing Sarcoma. PLoS One. 2016 Sep 2;11(9):e0159749. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0159749. eCollection 2016.