Plant Profile: Mistletoe – Viscum album

Plant Profile: Mistletoe – Viscum album

Mysterious Mistletoe (Viscum album L.)

SYNONYMS:

English: Bird Lime, Birdlime Mistletoe, Mystyldene, Lignum Crucis, All-heal,

German: Affolter, Donnerbesen, Heil aller Schäden, Hexenbesen, Nistel, Vogelleimholz, Heiligholz, Heilkreuzholz, Drudenfuss, Wintergrün,

French: Herbe de la Croix, Gui de Chêne

DESCRIPTION:

Mistletoe is an evergreen parasitic plant that sustains its greenish-yellow leaves throughout the winter. It becomes especially apparent once the leaves of its host have dropped. It certainly looks quite strange, this yellowish ball hanging high up in the tree.

Mistletoe’s growing habit is distinctly round. Its twigs bifurcate frequently, and its elongated, oval leaves always grow in opposite pairs. The tiny, inconspicuous yellowish flowers appear in May, but the translucent whitish pea-sized berries don’t ripen until late in the year.

Birds, particularly thrushes, spread the seeds. The fruit flesh of the berries is very sticky (hence the Latin name ‘Viscum album meaning ‘white sticky stuff’). The birds love those berries but the gooey stuff clings to their beaks which they clean by wiping them on the branches they happen to sit on. If the sticky stuff contains a seed then it has found a perfect spot to sprout. Soon it sends out a sucker rootlet that penetrates the bark and taps the sap of the host tree for nutrients and water. The berries, although loved by birds, are toxic to humans.

The Mistletoe is not all that choosey when it comes to its host. Although it is most commonly found on deciduous trees it is also occasionally found on conifers. The belief that it is frequently found growing on Oaks is a misconception that originates in the druidic lore. Druids always collect Mistletoe, which they consider sacred, from Oak trees, but it is actually rare to find it growing there. It is much more commonly found growing on apple trees, poplars, and lime trees.

Mistletoes belong to the family of Loranthaceae, which comprises some 75 genera and about 1000 species. Not all of them are parasitic but many of them are. Three Australian species are even terrestrial.

ECOLOGY:

Although Mistletoe is a parasite and as such is dependent on the host-plant for its nutrients and water, it does not rely on it for carbon dioxide. Since Mistletoe produces green, chlorophyll-containing leaves, it can perform its own photosynthesis. (Technically, it is thus a hemiparasite – it only partially depends on the host plant for its survival.)

As a rule, mistletoe does not kill the host-plant.

Mistletoe berries

HISTORY, MYTHOLOGY, AND FOLKLORE

The mysterious Mistletoe, airborne between heaven and earth, has always been a source of wonder. Where did it come from? How could it sustain itself, without roots, yet bear leaves and fruit, even in the winter, long after the life-force has retreated into the womb of the earth?

The Druids revered the Mistletoe as the holiest of holies, especially when it appeared oaks, their most sacred tree. The Mistletoe was their ‘Golden Bough’, the key to the heavens and to the underworld. The mysterious plant was regarded as the reproductive organs of Thor, the god of thunder, who also presided over the sacred oak tree. In the druidic tree calendar, December 23 belongs to the Mistletoe. It is the day on which it was ceremoniously cut:

Accompanied by prayers the chief druid would ascend into the tree to cut the unearthly Mistletoe with his golden sickle. Utmost care was taken to prevent the herb from touching the ground. The other druids stood below holding up a white cloth on which they caught the branches of the sacred herb. To mark the holy occasion they also sacrificed two white bulls, dressed with garlands.

Thus, the regenerative power of the solar deity was joined in sacrifice to the moon goddess as the female counterpart in this fertility rite. The blessing was meant to bestow abundance and protection against all evil at the birth of the new solar year. On this day the male and female forces of the universe were held in balance by the power of this symbolic union. By extension, this meant a harmonization of all opposites, a state of perfect balance at the turning point of the year. A festival of wild abandon followed the sacred sacrifice.

Much tamer and somewhat superficial remnants of these ancient and long-forgotten ritual enactments have survived even to the 21st century. Mistletoe twigs still hang above the entrance of the home at Christmas time, giving license to kiss even strangers, and thereby receive the blessing of the humble twig – even if nobody remembers why.

In some of the rural, more traditional areas of France young children can occasionally be seen spreading Mistletoe blessings on New Years Day. Running through the village, shouting ‘Au gui l’an neuf’ (gui de chêne – Mistletoe) they dedicate the New Year to the Mistletoe and thus invoke its protective powers.

Mistletoe was believed to fend off all evil, all bad spirits, and harmful witches’ spells. It was sometimes worn as an amulet for protection, fertility, and abundance.

Norse Mythology – Baldur’s Death

Norse Mythology reveals a darker, but related aspect of Mistletoe’s symbolism. The story tells of Baldur, the divine solar hero, son of Frigg and Odin, who was killed by a twig of Mistletoe. It is said that he would not return until after doomsday when he will bring in a new era of light, a new ‘golden age’.

The beautiful young sun god Baldur was plagued by visions of his imminent death. Obviously, he grew concerned. When his parents found out about his troubles they too grew concerned. But his mother Frigg hatched a plan: She would go on a mission to obtain sacred oaths from everything and everybody in Valhalla. And so she went to ask all the elements, all the stones, all the trees, the plants, and even the venomous beasts to promise that they would not kill her beloved Baldur. All swore never to harm the beautiful boy – all except one: the Mistletoe.  Frigg never thought it necessary to ask such a feeble plant not to do any harm. She simply did not think that it would be capable of such a deed.

Satisfied with all these promises Frigg declared her son invincible. Henceforth, shooting arrows and throwing stones at Baldur, none of which could harm him, became a favorite pastime among the gods. Indeed, taking shots at Baldur came to be a way to honor him.

But trouble was brewing in heavenly abode. The jealous God Loki somehow learned that the Mistletoe had never sworn that oath. Thus, he went straight to it and enlisted it in his wicked plan. With a sharpened twig of Mistletoe, he returned to the Gods’ assembly, where everyone was having fun taking shots at the invincible Baldur. Only his blind brother Hodur was left out. Slyly, Loki went up to Hodur, asking ‘why don’t you show honor to your brother and take a shot at him?’ ‘I can’t see and nor do I have anything to throw’, Hodur answered. ‘Here, I will help you’, Loki offered, passing Hodur the Mistletoe twig and helping him to direct his arrow. In an instant, Baldur was slain.

The Gods were aghast and horrified, shocked and angered, swearing to avenge the attack. One of Baldur’s other brothers was quickly dispatched to follow him to the Underworld. He was to plead with the Goddess of death, to allow Baldur to return to the heavens.

His plea was granted but under one condition: all the gods and all the other beings of the earth, living or dead must weep to express their sorrow. Or else Baldur would have to remain in the Underworld until doomsday. After hearing this, all the gods and all the beings of the earth, living and dead wailed and wept – all but Loki. And so it came to pass that we must wait for doomsday before the young sun god may return (which, judging by the way things are going, can’t be too far off…) .

This story follows the classic pattern of the solar hero myth, complete with the promise of resurrection and renewal after a period of darkness – a perfectly appropriate myth for the celebration of the winter solstice, which marks the birth of the Sun God.

Mistletoe in Christian Mythology

Thus it is not surprising that the Mistletoe also found its way into Christian mythology as well. It is said that the wood from which the cross was fashioned came from the Mistletoe and that this so upset the pious plant that it retreated into a hermit-like existence, taking up residency between heaven and earth, and becoming parasitic.

Mistletoe in Greek Mythology – Aeneas Journey to the Underworld

In Greek mythology, Mistletoe was also associated with the Underworld. Here, the sacred bough presented the key with which a living mortal could enter the Underworld and return unharmed to the world of the living. The story is told in the annals of Aeneas.

Using the powers of the golden bough the young hero Aeneas enters the Underworld with the ancient Sybil as his guide. His mission is to seek his father to seek his guidance and advice. Eventually, he finds him and receives his teachings concerning the cycles of life and death, for which he had come. Eventually, he returns safely to the world of the living. Mistletoe is the key to his destiny. It opened the gates to the underworld, where the hero is transformed. He returns to the world of the living, spiritually reborn.

Magical Powers: Protection, the key to life’s mysteries, fertility, abundance, blessings, peace, harmony, the balance of opposites, love, transformation. Astrologically this herb is governed by the Sun and Jupiter.

Mistletoe in trees

MEDICINAL USES

PARTS USED: Leaves and Stems

HARVEST: Autumn, before the berries form

CONSTITUENTS: These may vary depending on the host plant. Viscotoxin, triterpenoid saponins, choline, proteins, resin, mucilage, histamine, traces of an alkaloid

ACTIONS: Anti-tumour, cardioactive, nervine, tonic

INDICATIONS: Stress, nervous conditions, heart problems, epilepsy

Internal Use:

Not only the myths and lore of mistletoe are interesting. This herb is also interesting from a medicinal point of view. Most notably it is recommended as a remedy for epilepsy, particularly childhood epilepsy. There are not many herbs that are indicated for this affliction. This treatment seems to suggest a homeopathic approach, as large doses of the herb, and especially the berries, actually cause fits and convulsions. At one point Mistletoe was considered specific for this affliction and was also used to treat various other nervous conditions, such as hysteria, delirium, convulsions, neuralgia. It was also used for urinary disorders and certain heart conditions, especially those related to nervous conditions (stress). In ancient times, mistletoe amulets were worn to ward off epileptic attacks (thought to be caused by possession).

Mistletoe has cardio-active properties that can strengthen the pulse and regulate the heart rate while simultaneously dilating the blood vessels, thus lowering the blood pressure. This alleviates symptoms related to high blood pressure such as headaches and dizziness. However, from the literature, it is not entirely clear in which form Mistletoe should be administered for this effect. Some sources claim that the cardio-active principle is only effective if applied by injection, while others recommend standard teas, tinctures, and extracts. One source states that the active constituents are destroyed by heat and should be extracted by means of a cold infusion. In recent years another interesting property of Mistletoe has caught the interest of science:  its cancer-fighting properties. Mistletoe is now regularly used as an anti-tumor agent in naturopathic cancer treatment,

Culpeper says:

‘The Birdlime doth mollifie hard Knots, Tumors, and Impostumes, ripeneth and discusseth them; and draweth forth thick as well as thin Humors from the remote places of the Body, digesting and separating them’

Recent research has confirmed Mistletoe’s cytotoxic properties in vitro and to some degree in vivo. It also stimulates the immune system response thus increasing the white blood cell count. Both of these properties have brought Mistletoe into focus as a candidate for Cancer and Aids research, which has lead to the development of a Mistletoe drug used in chemotherapy. Studies have shown both equal and better survival rates in patients treated with certain Mistletoe preparations compared to standard chemotherapy drugs. Most importantly, perhaps, the patients who had received the Mistletoe treatment have reported a better quality of life than the control group who had received standard chemotherapy. Mistletoe does not produce nausea and hair loss associated with other cytotoxic chemotherapy agents. However, a possible negative side effect of subcutaneous treatment is a local infection at the site of injection. For detailed study results check out:

Cancer therapy with phytochemicals: evidence from clinical studies

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4418057/

Mistletoe is also said to regulate digestive functions and able to cure chronic constipation, probably via a stimulating effect on the gall bladder and the metabolic rate in general.

Older sources also recommend it as a treatment for sterility and menstrual difficulties. This would make sense where such problems stem from underlying nervous system issues such as stress, tension, hysteria, or fear.

External Use:

External use of Mistletoe is no longer common, but older sources describe the preparation of a  plaster (mix with wax to make an ointment) which can be applied to hardened swellings and tumors. Mistletoe can also be added to crèmes in order to soothe sensitive or sore skin. Such crèmes are disinfectant and soothing while reducing abnormal cell production. Mistletoe thus suggests itself as an additive for lotions designed to soothe psoriasis and anti-dandruff shampoos.

CAUTION: The berries are poisonous. This potent herb is not suitable as a home remedy. Consult a doctor or herbal practitioner before use.

Pumpkins (Curcubita sp)

Pumpkins (Curcubita sp)

Gourds, Pumpkins, and Winter Squash

Since it is nearly Halloween I thought I’d write a post about Pumpkins – predictable I know, but nonetheless fascinating. Pumpkin, a member of the gourd family, belongs to a huge group of cultivars that are all variations of the winter squash. They come in a truly amazing range of shapes, colors, and sizes. Talking about size – some growers have developed the strange ambition: who can grow the BIGGEST Pumpkin of them all? The jury is still out, but growers have already managed to produce some pumpkins of absurd, even obscene sizes. So far, the largest Giant Pumpkin (Cucurbita maxima) ever reported is said to have weighed more than a ton! Other common cultivars are Cucurbita pepo (e.g. Acorn and Halloween type squash) and Cucurbita moschata (e.g. Butternut squash).

The gourd family is native to the Americas. Wild members were used as long as 10 000 years ago, and the family was one of the first to be domesticated. Various types of squash and gourds have been cultivated in Central America since about 7500 – 5000 BC!

They have never lost their appeal. On the contrary. New forms have been developed and Pumpkins, Squash, and Co. have now spread around the globe.

pumpkin varieties

Distribution:

Archeobotanist have found the earliest evidence of Pumpkin use in the Oaxaca region of  Mexico, but its native range comprises both, the northeastern corner of Mexico and the southwestern United States.

What’s in a name?

In the US and the UK the term ‘Pumpkin’, which seems to have derived from a Native American word for ‘a big round fruit’, only refers to the familiar round orange winter squash best known as Halloween decorations. But in New Zealand, the word is used for all types of winter squash.

The German word ‘Kürbis’ derives from the scientific name of the family of ‘Cucurbita’.

Food use

Botanically, Pumpkins are classified as ‘berries’, but no-one except botanists would think of them that way. Edible Pumpkins are mostly grown for the orange fruit flesh, which is incredibly versatile and can be used in countless sweet and savory dishes, most famous among them, Pumpkin pie! But the seeds are also edible and yield an edible and deliciously nutty oil that is rich in vitamin E and linoleic acid. It is not suitable for cooking, as its delicate constituents are destroyed at high temperatures, but it is excellent for adding an extra flavor dimension to soups and salads.

Even the flowers are edible. Stuffed and fried they are a delicacy.

pumpkin pie

Nutrition

It may come as a surprise that pumpkin is quite low in carbohydrates – the caloric value is 66% less than that of potatoes. Nutritionally, pumpkin scores high in beta carotene, the precursor of vitamin A that is so important for the immune system. It also contains pectin, a type of fibre that not only promotes a sense of satiety but also regulates the flow of sugars in the GI tract after a meal. It is thus a very beneficial food for people with metabolic issues. However, it is difficult to predict exactly how much pectin will be present in any particular pumpkin. The content level varies depending on the time of harvest as well as the method of preparation.

Pumpkin also contains vitamin C, B2, and B6. But, amazingly, it has a water content of 92%!

Medicinal use

Pumpkin is a therapeutic food that can boost the immune system and soothes kidney and bladder conditions. The seeds are rich in zinc which boosts the immune system. They are also indicated as a supportive nutritional remedy in the treatment of enlarged prostate glands. The Aztecs used the seeds as a remedy to expel worms, a use that has been adopted by western herbalists.

Pumpkin customs: Halloween decorations

Halloween decorations at the London Dungeon

 

Traditionally, the Halloween pumpkin was a Turnip. I kid you not! It was once a relatively local folk custom in Ireland to carve a Turnip at Halloween. The effigy was known as Jack-o-lantern, which has its origin in an Irish folk tale about a stingy guy called Jack (Stingy Jack, actually)

The Tale of Stingy Jack

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, Stingy Jack had some drinks with the devil but did not have the money to pay for them. There must be some pretty stupid devils in Ireland – Jack manages to persuade this devil to change himself into a coin so he could pay for the drinks. But as soon as the devil obliged him Stingy Jack decided to keep the coin instead! He put it into his pocket next to a silver cross, thus preventing the devil to change back into his original form.

Eventually, he made a deal with the coin. He freed him on the condition that he would leave him alone and not bother him for a year and a day, not claim his soul, should he die in the meantime. After a year and a day had passed the devil returned and stupidly allowed himself to be tricked again. This time Jack had sent him up a tree to pick a fruit and while he was up there, had carved a cross into the bark. Thus the devil was stuck again. Jack demanded that he would leave him alone again for a further 10 years.

But Jack did not live that long. Soon after the second episode with the devil he died. But despite his posturing with the cross and all, God was not pleased with his conduct and refused entry to heaven on account of his dishonesty. This was a bit of an unforeseen dilemma for Jack, since the devil, still upset with him for tricking him and being mean, also refused him entry to hell. Besides, he had given him his word that he would not claim his soul for 10 years.

Thus, the devil sent Jack off with only a piece of coal to keep him warm and to light his way through the twilight zone. To carry the coal Jack carved out a Turnip to safeguard his chunk of coal, and to this day he roams the land as the lost soul known as Jack O’Lantern.

When the Irish arrived in the United States they brought their story of Jack O’Lantern and their custom of carving the Turnip with them. When they came across the Pumpkin they were delighted as Pumpkins are much easier to carve than Turnips! And, as they say, the rest is history.

Remembering the dead, honoring the spirits

This is the most common story regarding the use of pumpkins at Halloween. But in fact, the real story is much older. In Celtic Ireland, the custom of the carved out Turnip root far predates this Christianized tale. Originally, it is related to the Celtic Festival of Samhain (November 1st), which marks the end of the growing season. At this time, the veil between the worlds is said to be thin and spirits of the deceased leave the Other World to roam among us and to beg for food. It was customary to put out a little food and drink for these spirits and a carved-out Turnip with a candle placed inside was hung up so they could find their way. In turn, the spirits blessed the souls of those who provided for them. The day that marked the occasion later became known as ‘All- Hallows Eve’, which in time morphed into ‘Halloween’.

Interestingly, a similar custom is practiced in Mexico, where November 1st is celebrated as ‘El Dia de los Muertos’ – the day of the dead, which combines Catholic elements (All Saints and All Souls day) with pre-Columbian Aztec traditions. It is a day to remember the dead and families gather in cemeteries to make offerings to their departed relatives. Food offerings, including candied Pumpkins, are an important part of the celebrations, as are the sugar skulls and candles are placed on their graves.

As endearing as these ancient traditions of remembering the dead are, the accompanying waste of food is truly shocking. As the Guardian reports, a staggering 12.76 million pumpkins will be purchased, carved up, and then binned over Halloween.

That’s scary!

The Old Tree and the Carpenter

The Old Tree and the Carpenter

One day, a carpenter and his apprentice were traveling through the countryside. They came upon a beautiful ancient tree standing by an earth altar. The carpenter’s apprentice was admiring the ancient being but the old carpenter exclaimed: look at that useless old tree, it is no good for anything. If one was to cut it down to build a ship with it, the ship would soon sink or if one were to make tools from it they would soon rot, it’s a completely useless old tree.

Later that night the two retired at an inn nearby. During the night the old carpenter had a dream. The old tree appeared to him and spoke: You want to compare me with your domesticated trees, like hawthorn, pear, apple or cherry or whatever else bears fruit for you? No sooner as they produce their crop for you they are abused and violated. You cut their branches and slice their bark. Thus their generosity is their own demise. By merit of their gifts, they endanger their own lives and rarely reach their ripe old age. Such is common practice. Therefore I have long since tried to be as useless as possible. You, mortal! What if I had some use to you – I would never have reached this age and size, I would have been cut down for my wood a long time ago. And besides, you and I are creatures alike, why should one creature pass judgment upon the usefulness of another? What do you, a mere mortal and useless human, know about the ‘useless’ trees?

When the carpenter woke from his dream the next morning he thought deeply about its message. When his apprentice later asked him why this tree, in particular, came to serve at the earth altar the carpenter answered: quiet, now, let’s not speak about it anymore. The tree chose to grow there because otherwise, those who did not know him would have abused him. Had he not grown by the earth altar surely he would have been cut down for his wood and died.

We tend to place more value on the things that can be fashioned from plants than on nature herself, or the plants on which we depend. But, all of nature is sacred and has an innate and inalienable value, which it is not for us to judge. 

 

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