Plants and Folklore: Mistletoe

by Lilian Halstead

Most people know that when you meet someone under the mistletoe at Christmas time you have to give them a kiss, but like many evergreen plants it had a role in winter solstice customs before being incorporated into Christmas celebrations. In fact, it is often banned from Church decorations due to being considered a pagan plant, probably because it is believed to have been highly valued by the druids.

In Norse mythology the god Baldr was killed using a weapon made of mistletoe, it being the only thing his mother couldn’t get to swear never to harm him. In Greek myth Aeneas has to pick the golden bough in order to visit the underworld, it is speculated that the golden bough is mistletoe due to the fact it appears golden in winter.

However, the main role of mistletoe in British folklore is as a fertility symbol. In addition to being used as something to kiss under, mistletoe has been used also as a treatment for infertility and as a charm for women to help them find husbands.

And if that is not enough, it has also been used as a symbol of peace and good luck.

Mistletoe and cancer: Is mistletoe medicinal?

By Joanna Wolstenholme

Mistletoe is everywhere is Cambridge – look up into the trees and you will often spot dense balls of twigs sprouting from a branch. But other than its mystical and romantic connotations, does mistletoe actually have any clinically proven medical use?

Rudolf  Steiner is credited with being the first to raise a link between mistletoe and cancer, admittedly on a rather dubious basis. His school of thought, anthroposophy, followed the maxim, ‘like cures like’. Mistletoe, like cancer, is a parasite, and so it of course follows that mistletoe will be able to cure cancer.

882644_3696592471377_1469150759_oHowever, clinical trials prompted by many people following Steiners advice, have had mixed outcomes. In several trials, cancer patients treated with various forms of mistletoe preparations have had fewer side effects, better symptom relief and survived longer after beating the cancer. However many of these trials were flawed as they had major weaknesses, such as studying just a few patients and lack of information about mistletoe dose. There are also some side effects (but then what cancer therapy doesn’t have side effects?) such as inflammation at the injection site, headache and fever.

Yet one compound found in mistletoe that may not be so welcome is its lectin, which is similar in structure to the castor bean lectin, the infamous ricin (that of the end of the umbrella to kill a journalist fame). As with many medicines that come with plants, the answer will be to identify the useful active agent produced by mistletoe and find a way to either purify it or synthesise it artificially. Until that point, however, it serves as a reminder of how powerful plant chemicals can be – for good and harm!