Mistletoe and Wine...
Updated: May 16, 2022
By Frances Watkins, Medical Herbalist
When the leaves have fallen it is easier to see mistletoe, Viscum album L. growing in trees near you! This hemiparasitic evergreen is a native shrub of Britain and Europe and is also referred to as European mistletoe and is found on a variety of native trees including hawthorn, poplar and lime. The distinctive pendent bushes are most commonly seen on cultivated apple trees and can also be found growing on conifers although rarely.
Mistletoe synonyms include allheal and birdlime with the latter named after a sticky substance applied to branches to trap small birds and is reflective of the gummy white berries encapsulating the seed. The male and female parts are found on separate plants with the berries appearing in November and December and inside each sticky berry, one seed which is transferred by birds and on reaching another a tree, sends out threads which root into the bark. The berries are particularly liked by the Mistle thrush which aids distribution of the plant and according to Grieve (1934), when fodder was scarce, the stems and foliage were given to sheep in winter.
In the early 20th century the plant was most abundant in Herefordshire and Worcestershire, both counties acclaimed for their cider orchards and abundance of apple trees (Grieve, 1934). At the turn of the millennium with a renewed interest in cider and perry production, Herefordshire has remained at its centre for both traditional and new varieties.
Herbal folklore A lot has been written about mistletoe from Norse mythology, Greek and Roman traditions and as well as more recent traditions (Barker, 2002). Today the plant is gathered and brought in doors during festive celebrations at the end of the year, is celebrated with its own national day on 01 December in England and for more than 160 years, a mistletoe auction held in Tenbury Wells (Jonathan Brigg's Mistletoe Diary).
Mistletoe was dismissed of its medicinal value in the 17th century by Withering (Allen and Hatfield, 2004) and is now receiving more attention with the publication of evidence based literature on its therapeutic properties. In the eighteenth century a pamphlet on the treatment of epilepsy was published by Sir John Colbatch who recommended the powdered leaves mixed with black cherry water administered daily and for other conditions including hysteria and neuralgia (Grieves, 1931, p.548). Mistletoe is also recorded as being used to treat St Vitus' dance, heart palpitation, high blood pressure and heart disease, fevers and whooping cough. The active constituent viscin is a resin which has been found to exhibit a relaxing effect on the nervous system whilst other compounds reduce high blood pressure (Nazaruk & Orlikowski, 2015).
Benefits to health
Rudolph Steiner believed mistletoe was beneficial in treating cancer patients and today, an anthroposophical medicine known as Mistletoe Therapy is a pharmaceutical preparation in the form of an injection or drops to be taken by mouth, used as an adjunct with conventional treatment. See the Mistletoe Therapy UK website for research developments including case studies, systematic reviews and clinical trials using this plant. A clinical study combining targeted medicines with mistletoe showed a significant reduction in adverse events in all-stage cancer patients (Throenicke et al, 2018). Practitioners of Western herbal medicine prescribe mistletoe as part of a bespoke medicine for patients with high blood pressure, as an antispasmodic for nervous crises and topically, applied to a tumour. The dried young leafy twigs of mistletoe, Viscum album L. are usually harvested before fruiting or after flowering and dried in cool shade (Barker, 2002).
References Allen, D.E. and Hatfield, G. (2004). Medicinal plants in folk tradition. Timber Press. pp. 166-67. Barker, J. (2002). The medicinal flora of Britain and Northwestern Europe. Winter Press, pp.86-87.
Grieve, M. (1931). A modern herbal. Tiger Books International reprinted 1994.
Throenicke et al. (2018). Clinical safety of combined targeted and Viscum album L. therapy in oncology patients. Medicines (Basel), 5(3),100, Available at https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30200590/
Nazaruk, J. and Orlikowski, P. (2015). Phytochemical profile and therapeutic potential of Viscum album L. Available at https://doi.org/10.1080/14786419.2015.1022776