Name: Mistletoe (Viscum album)
Otherwise known as: Lignum Crucis, Herbe de la Croix
Habitat: A semi-parasitic, evergreen sub-shrub of the Loranthaceae family mostly found on the branches of deciduous trees in temperate zones in northern Europe. It displays yellow/green, opposite, soft leaves that grow at the tips of branched stems. The plant, which grows to about 60cm, is dioecious: having flowers of both sexes in the axils, transforming into the translucent berries.
What does it do: The ancients believed the plant grew from bird excrement. The common name is Anglo-Saxon for birdlime: Misteltan. Mistletoe was venerated by Druidic cults; they believed it protected the tribe from evil spirits, and would hold elaborate ceremonies beneath the tree where it grew. The Druids cut it with a golden sickle and should the plant fall to earth before it was cut then it was a bad omen and would herald a national distress. Druids were skilled in the science of folk-medicine – and miraculous cures were accredited to their magical knowledge. The display of Mistletoe at Christmas was a reminder of its pagan role as an emblem of fecundity.
The ancient physicians – Pliny, Discorides and Galen (the father of surgery) – believed the plant had special powers to cure cancer. Early herbalists treated topical sarcomas with the berry and believed they could cure epilepsy with infusions and poultices made from the leaves and stem.
The plant is used as a vasodilator, hypotensive, cardiac depressant, sedative and an immune system stimulator. The drug companies believe there is profit in the berries and are investing substantial sums of money.