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Mistle Toe (1940)

Ah, December. That time of year when mistletoe springs up magically in entrance halls and doorways, driving unsuspecting individuals into an awkward embrace before they make a mad dash for the booze.

Today, we associate mistletoe with smooching; however, this wasn’t always the case. In fact, the poisonous, parastic plant has a long association with medicine, and in the past would have been recognized by doctors as a vital ingredient in the treatment of various disorders.

One of the first records of mistletoe being used medicinally comes from Hippocrates (460 – 377 BC) who used the plant to treat diseases of the spleen and complaints associated with menstruation. Celsus (25 BC – 50 AD) also describes using mistletoe in the fifth book of De Medicina. He mixed it with various organic or inorganic substances to create plasters and emollients, which he then used to treat abscesses, carcinoids, and scrofula. There is also evidence that Pliny the Elder (23 AD–79 AD) used mistletoe to treat infertility and ulcers. Mind you, Pliny was also the man who thought you could cure incontinence by drinking wine mixed with the ash of an incinerated pig’s penis, touching linen or papyrus to your genitals, or urinating in your dog’s bed. [1]


When the preserved remains of the 2,000-year-old bog body known as Lindow Man (above) were recovered in 1984, scientists also found evidence of his last meal still preserved in his stomach. It included a grilled bran pancake that had burned while it was cooking, and a drink made from mistletoe.

M0008872 The oldest printed description and picture of the mistletoe.By the 15th and 16th centuries, mistletoe was being used in Europe to cure all kinds of ailments. The oldest printed description and picture of mistletoe dates from 1491 (right). It was described in herbal books from this period as “warming, softening, and an astringent.” It was used to treat afflictions of the kidney and spleen; and mixed with other plants to create poultices and plaster for ulcers and bone fractures. It was even used to alleviate labour pains in pregnant women. During the 17th century, British chemist Sir Robert Doyle suggested drinking pulverized mistletoe in black cherry juice during a full moon to cure epilepsy—a disease that was often associated with witchcraft and devilry because of its symptoms.

For hundreds of years, many Native American tribes had been brewing mistletoe into a liquid before immersing their heads in the tincture to alleviate headaches. The use of mistletoe—especially the kind gathered from oak trees—continued throughout the 19th century, especially in folk medicine in the United States. [2]

But what was it about mistletoe that might have appealed to healers in the past? Apparently, the plant can have an unusual effect on the circulatory system. It acts as a stimulant, increasing blood pressure and heartbeat (though both of these effects can wear off very suddenly, which can be dangerous). In this way, mistletoe was sometimes used to treat angina and heart ailments.

Mistletoe3Today, researchers in the medical community have once again turned their sights to mistletoe, this time in connection with cancer. Dozens of laboratories in the US have conducted experiments, yielding results that show an extract from the plant not only kills cancer cells in certain animals, but also boosts their immune systems, helping the body to fight off the disease naturally. These results, however, have not been proven to work reliably in humans to date, and more experiments are needed before we can understand what (if any) are the effects of mistletoe on cancer. [3]

In Europe (especially Germany), mistletoe is currently used for palliative care of cancer patients. Over the past several decades, trials have shown that the herb can help ease fatigue, nausea, and depression in patients undergoing chemotherapy. Interestingly, some studies also suggest that the plant can help diminish the toxicity of chemo drugs, which means patients can tolerate higher doses. [4]

So, next time you’re at a cocktail party and are taken unawares under the mistletoe by someone you’d rather not kiss in a lifetime of Decembers, distract him or her with the medical history of the plant, before making a quick exit. But don’t blame me if it doesn’t work.

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1. Pliny. Rockham H, trans. Natural History. 16.250-251. Vol 4. Loeb Classical Library ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press; 1938-1963: p. 551.
2. K. S. Zanker and S. V. Kaveri (eds.) Mistletoe: From Mythology to Evidence-Based Medicine (Karger, 2015), pp. 3 – 5.
3. Brian Handwerk, “Medical Mistletoe: Can the Holiday Plant Really Fight Cancer?” Smithsonian (8 December 2014).
4. Ibid.