From Flora von Deutschland
Along with conifers, poinsettias and holly, mistletoe is one of the plants most associated with this season. So, a perfect time of year to have a profile on it, methinks.
There are other types of mistletoe, but for this post, I am focusing on the European variety (Viscum album).
Other Names: Herbe de la Croix, Birdlime, Mistletan.
Description: The European mistletoe is native to the UK/Northern Ireland, as well as to much of Europe. It is a hemiparastic evergreen that lives in mostly deciduous trees, and is compatible with at least 200 different host species.
It forms 'bushes' on the branches of trees, that are anywhere from 1.5 to 6 feet in diameter. The leaves are shaped like a tongue and they have white, round berries whose sticky juices have been noted to resemble semen.
Warnings: As with all herbs, one should make sure to be thoroughly informed before ingesting them, and is best to do so under the guidance of a qualified healer.
According to the National Centre for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine, 'Raw, unprocessed mistletoe is poisonous. Eating raw, unprocessed European mistletoe or American mistletoe can cause vomiting, seizures, a slowing of the heart rate, and even death.'
As well, they point out that in countries such as Germany have mistletoe that is available for therapeutic injection. There are potential side effects such as 'itching or redness in the area of the injection. Less commonly, side effects may include more extensive skin reactions, low-grade fevers, or flu-like symptoms. There have been very rare reports of more serious allergic reactions, such as difficulty breathing.'
Also, avoid while pregnant, as it is known to cause contractions of the uterus.
Cultivating: Germination for the mistletoe usually begins once a bird's business is dropped on a its new host; the seeds sprout from the pile of bird poop, and then takes root in the bark of the tree.
The mistletoe mainly uses its host as a source of water and mineral nutrients, while its leaves do some photosynthesis. It usually bears fruit around the Winter Solstice.
According to Mrs. M Grieve, one could quite easily cultivate their own mistletoe simply by 'rubbing the berries on the smooth bark of the underside of the branches of trees till they adhere, or inserting them in clefts made for the purpose'.
It is hardy to about a zone 5, and grows best in dappled shade. Brother Aloysius suggests that you 'gather in the Autumn or Winter' and that it should be 'thoroughly dried and preserved in well-corked glass pots'.
Medicinal/Remedial Properties and Lore: Antispasmodic, cardiac, cytostatic, diuretic, emmengogue, haemostat, hypotensive, narcotic, nervine, stimulant, tonic, vasodilator.
Culpeper said that 'misselto doth molify hard knots, tumours, and imposthumes' and 'is a cephalic and nervine medicine, useful for convulsive fits, palsy, and vertigo.'
Brother Aloysius recommended it for 'watery gall, acid stomach, phlegm in the chest, jaundice, ling sores, internal sores' as well as 'convulsions, hysteria, St. Vitus' Dance, and whopping cough'.
A holiday postcard, circa 1900 from Wikipedia
Magical Properties and Lore: It is said that Cesar saw Druids 5 days after the new moon following the Winter Solstice, climbing into oak trees and cutting mistletoe with golden sickles for ritual use. There are disagreements as to whether it was actually mistletoe or holly that they were cutting down.
According to Paul Beyerl's Master Book of Herbalism mistletoe is 'a Fertility Herbe, Herbe of Protection, and a Visionary Herbe'. For a Yule ritual in his book, people should toss a mistletoe berry into the hearth-fire to represent those personal things that one desires, as the sun comes back.
Mistletoe is associated with solar deities because it bears fruit as the sun it at it's lowest point (the Sun God dies and is reborn), and also lunar deities (Moon Goddesses) because of it's round, white fruit.
Once gathered, many sources say that it should not touch the ground, and it does indeed have many potential uses.
For protection, in Culpeper's Complete Herbal, he says that is can be hung around the neck to 'remedy witchcraft'. Also, sprigs can be hung on doorways to protect houses from lightening and evil spirits; it can be placed by a cradle to avoid faeries (careful that little hands can't reach it!); hung in a barn to protect a herd of cattle and buried in a field to protect a crop.
For this time of year, string up some mistletoe to get some kisses ;)
Where this custom actually originated from I am not sure, but there are a few that I have seen:
One involves the Norse God Baldr, who is killed by an arrow made of mistletoe, that is shot by Loki. After Baldr dies, Frigg cries and her tears become the white berries. In one version of the story, Baldr comes back to life, and Frigg is so happy that she blesses the mistletoe and says she will bestow a kiss to anyone who stands underneath it.
Under the Mistletoe, 1873
Another folktale says that if warring foes came under a tree with mistletoe on it, they would lay down their arms and kiss each other as a sign of peace.
Other Uses: It has long been thought that mistletoe is just a pest that not only kills off trees, but degrades entire habitats. But, according to a study done on the relationship between junipers and mistletoe, the mistletoe can actually play a role in protecting biodiversity.