Let’s start with a question.
Well, whether you have heard … or ever will hear …of Justin Bieber is probably a factor of your age: but it’s likely that everyone knows why Justin will be under the mistletoe; he’ll be hoping to steal a kiss from a pretty girl, just like every young man at the office Christmas party, blissfully unaware that originally it was the girl’s privilege to insist that any man whom she met under the mistletoe was obliged to kiss her, an early example of feminism that has been forgotten today. And, as may be readily imagined, it was often the … how shall I put this? … less obviously attractive girls who were the most enthusiastic in attempting to lure a man under the mistletoe with them.
Mistletoe rejoices in the botanical name Viscum album … Viscum being the plant’s Latin name, for it was known to the Romans, while album has nothing at all to do with Justin Bieber but simply means ‘white’, referring to the white berries. Mistletoe has long attracted the attention of mankind, for here is a truly extraordinary plant that seems to defy the laws of nature. It lacks the usual roots associated with virtually all plants; it lives, apparently without the means of feeding itself, on another plant, usually a tree; it remains green when the host plant has shed its leaves; it has an odd shape; and its prominent berries appear in the winter time rather than in the summer or autumn like ‘normal’ plants. With so many unusual characteristics it is not surprising that it was held in some awe by earlier generations and was assumed to have mysterious powers, most particularly in warding off witches, warlocks and demons, although it was also very useful in finding buried treasure and, more prosaically, in opening locks. Druidic priests regarded it as a sacred plant; and it may be this association with religion that led to the belief that the cross on which Jesus was crucified was made from mistletoe. Sanctus Crucis Lignum … ‘the wood (lignum) of the Holy Cross’ … was the name given to it by sixteenth century apothecaries, who used it in treatments for epilepsy, tumours, ulcers, apoplexy and palsy, this last affliction referring to various types of paralysis often accompanied by a loss of feeling and uncontrolled body movements such as shaking.
Although most of these beliefs are dismissed nowadays as being without foundation, mistletoe does have an active ingredient that reduces blood pressure and so makes its use in the treatment of epileptic fits and apoplexy entirely understandable. And today there are people who believe that mistletoe will prove to be the basis of drugs to counter a wide variety of cancers, although my understanding is that the jury is still debating these claims. Whatever their virtue, you may wish to follow a tradition that is widely found throughout the English-speaking world … but not elsewhere, curiously … and hang mistletoe in your home on Christmas Eve, leaving it throughout the coming year until next Christmas to protect the house against lightning or fire. But I’m not guaranteeing that this is correct either!
Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society