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Viscum album, mistletoe

Summary

Kissing under the mistletoe reflects the belief in the Doctrine of Signatures. Try not to giggle next Christmas when you think about where your kiss is being planted.

Family

Viscaceae

Meaning of the Name

Viscum
From the Latin ‘visco’, ‘sticky’ a reference to the sticky berries and, possibly, to its parasitic nature meaning it needs to ‘stick’ to its host in order to grow.
 
album
White

Viscum album, mistletoe

Viscum album, mistletoe

Common Names and Synonyms

mistletoe, churchman’s greeting, kiss and go.

How Poisonous, How Harmful?

Mistletoe contains viscotoxins which are basic toxic proteins.

It causes pale lips, inflamed eyes, dilated pupils, slow pulse, hallucinations and coma and may result in hepatitis. Native mistletoe is said to not be excessively toxic but imported varieties can be stronger. This is often said to explain why most poisoning occurs at Christmas but it may just be it is at Christmas that children could access the berries.

Incidents

No recent reported incidents possibly because its toxicity is well known and it is mostly displayed above head height where children can not reach it.

In 1874, the British Medical Journal contained a letter from a doctor who had been called to treat a 14-year old boy who was showing symptoms very similar to alcohol intoxication. He was given an emetic and eight partial digested mistletoe berries were found in the vomit. He was agitated and violent but calmed down after two hours of treatment and was completely well the next morning.

Folklore and Facts

The way the berries cluster was thought to look like ‘male parts’ so it was revered as an aphrodisiac. Kissing under the mistletoe is associated with its believed fertility enhancement.

Mistletoe was said to have been the tree used to make Christ’s cross and, therefore, condemned to never be able to grow on God’s earth. Thus it grows as a parasite by putting roots into a tree. Generally, this will be a softwood tree as that makes it easier for the roots to penetrate but, rarely, mistletoe will grow on oak. Because this is a rare occurrence great reverence was paid to mistletoe growing on oak. In addition, it was held that mistletoe would take properties from its host so mistletoe grown on oak was stronger than other plants.

As an evergreen, mistletoe takes custody of the soul of its host in the winter months and thus, if removed from an oak in the winter, it will have all of the power of the oak.

Odin’s son, Balder, dreamt of his own death so, the goddess Frigg took an oath from all living and inanimate things that they would not hurt Balder. The Norse Gods amused themselves by throwing all manner of things at Balder knowing they could not harm him. Loki, the mischief-maker, found out that Frigg had not obtained an oath from the mistletoe so he gave Hother, who was blind, a twig of mistletoe and told him to throw it at Balder. The mistletoe pierced Balder through and through and he died. This is one of the many stories associated with mistletoe because of the fact that it grows without being in contact with the ground.

The belief that mistletoe seeds fell from the sky, as a gift from some higher power, but did not reach the ground led to its use to treat epilepsy, the ‘falling sickness’. Great care was taken to catch the mistletoe in a cloth to prevent contact with the ground which would have dissipated its healing power. In some cultures, the mistletoe was not cut from the host but had to be shot away with arrows or knocked off with rocks as if to simulate uncontrolled falling.

John Gerard describes the glue made from the berries as poisonous because it ‘setteth the tongue on fire’ and ‘doth so draw together, shut, and glue up the guts, as that there is no passage for the excrements’. Thomas Johnson disagrees and adds a note that 'daily experience shows this plant to have no malign or poisonous...faculty [but is] frequently used in medicines against the epilepsy’.