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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 5th December 2011 

According to the TV news, this morning, it has been a bumper year for mistletoe, Viscum album. It has certainly been an unusual year for weather but I don’t know if it has, genuinely, favoured the growth of this parasitic plant or just created an opportunity for the biggest grower in the UK to get some helpful PR in the week in which its 2011 crop is being auctioned.

For a commercial producer, a bumper crop can be a disadvantage unless you can create enough demand to support the price. It’s good to see the BBC doing its bit to help even just a very small part of the British economy.

Before going any further, I should say that I’m only referring to Viscum album when I write ‘mistletoe’. In the USA, the common name gets applied to plants in the Phoradendron genus and there are those who apply it to just about any parasitic plant.

Viscum album is a plant with a great deal of folklore attached to it. Like a lot of folklore, this comes from the human race’s desire to find an explanation for everything. A plant growing by having its roots in the wood of a tree rather than being in the ground was so unusual that all manner of strange explanations for this were put forward.

A lot of plant folklore has been absorbed into Christian tradition. It’s impossible to know if this was a way of bridging to move from paganism to Christianity so that the convert didn’t have to make a complete leap in the dark or a way of showing that the pagan had really been a Christian all along without knowing it.

For mistletoe, this leads to the belief that it was wood from mistletoe that was used to make the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified. Viscum album, of course, is not a tree, nor is it strictly speaking a bush, and it only grows to be about five feet in diameter. The association with Christ is, however, used to explain why it has to grow on other plants because it is so damned as to be refused contact with God’s earth.

But, the notion that mistletoe was special in some way exists in all sorts of pre-Christian and pagan cultures. It is, generally, thought to be the Golden Bough of Greek mythology and features in Norse stories.

Not surprisingly, it finds it easiest to root in soft wood such as apple trees but, very rarely, it will successfully root in an oak tree. This is sufficiently rare to imbue such mistletoe with greater powers and Druids are said to have cut it from the oak tree, without touching it, using a golden scythe and catching it in a white cloth to prevent it coming in contact with the ground and, as a result, losing all its magical qualities.

In modern times, it is best known for the tradition of being able to request a kiss under the mistletoe at Christmas. That practice comes from the Saturnalia, originally a Greek festival though later also a Roman event. The structure of the leaves and the berries was said to sufficiently resemble male genitalia that the idea, given the name Doctrine of Signatures in the 16th century, of a plant showing its purpose could be applied.

Originally, one berry would be removed from the mistletoe after each kiss, presumably on the basis that the magical power of that berry had been used up, but that does not seem to be widespread these days.

It is, of course, a poisonous plant though, when writing the plant page for this website, I could only find one documented case and that was in 1874 and non-fatal. Turning briefly to American mistletoe in the Phoradendron genus, a study published in 1986 looked at toxicity of small amounts of the plant and found only 14 reported cases in a four year period with none fatal. From this it concluded that ingestion of up to three berries or a couple of leaves was unlikely to produce any serious ill effects.

And yet, I have a book in my library that states, categorically, that mistletoe should not be brought in the house at Christmas because of the risk of a small child getting poisoned. I suppose I shouldn’t criticise someone for being super cautious but, the problem comes because the author goes on to say artificial mistletoe (with its plastic berries that could easily be a choke hazard) should be used instead.